Menendez on coronavirus: In these unprecedented times, small businesses need even more help

Menendez on coronavirus: In these unprecedented times, small businesses need even more help


By:  Bob Menendez
Star-Ledger

From the financial crisis of 2008 to the devastation unleashed by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the people of New Jersey know what it means to fight their way back from a disaster.

The COVID-19 pandemic is both a public health crisis and an economic crisis, as the drastic – but absolutely necessary – social distancing measures we need to limit its spread and save lives are the very measures causing widespread economic pain.

Talking with state and local leaders, business owners, hospital executives and others from across New Jersey, I’m hearing one message loud and clear: our federal stimulus efforts cannot focus on big corporations alone. We must put workers and families, communities and small businesses first.

That means delivering ventilators, protective gear, and medical supplies to hospitals and health workers on the frontlines. It means providing direct payments to help families pay their bills. It means ensuring New Jersey is reimbursed for the billions we’re spending to battle COVID-19.

And it also means helping the 800,000 small businesses that drive New Jersey’s economy survive this storm. 

In recent days, my staff and I have heard from small business owners in every sector struggling to stay afloat in the midst of this pandemic. Anna Rulnick, the owner of a children’s clothing store and event space called Mod Studios in South Orange, has seen business plummet and worries about making payroll in the coming weeks. In Toms River, Renee Millemann of Coastline Pilates has already had to shut down her studio and shift to working remotely, and knows that clients who’ve already lost their jobs may no longer be able to afford classes. 

Anna and Renee are just two of the countless small business owners struggling across New Jersey, from restaurants and bars abiding by curfews and closures, to manufacturers facing supply chain issues, to hotels and boardwalk shops struggling amid casino closures and travel bans.

We must help these small businesses survive this crisis if we expect them to revive our economy once we successfully defeat this pandemic. We must help them continue to make payroll to lessen the toll on workers and ensure their staff is ready to go when this is over.

While Congress has already passed increased funding to boost lending to small businesses, the fact is our current tools may not be enough to help them weather this storm.

While small businesses in New Jersey are now eligible for low-cost loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, the 3.5% interest rate is likely too high in these most unprecedented of times. That’s why I recently introduced the Small Business Relief from Communicable Disease Induced Economic Hardship Act to make these loans interest-free up to $2 million for businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic – so they have more cash on hand to continue to make payroll, keep their shelves stocked and ultimately weather this storm. 

This week, Congress passed a stimulus package that includes emergency paid sick and family leave so employees can continue collecting paychecks if they have to miss work to care for themselves or a loved one sickened by the coronavirus. Business owners who partake will be reimbursed by the federal government. It’s a win-win.

We also need to inject more cash into the economy to keep business going. 

That means increasing funding and providing greater flexibility under the Community Development Block Grant, or CDBG program. State and local governments can use these grants to help Main Street businesses replenish inventory, meet expenses and recover losses. And unlike SBA loans, these grants do not have to be repaid. Unfortunately, this measure is completely missing from the Senate Republican Majority’s proposed stimulus bill in its current form. That has to change.

We must also remember that small businesses are not just our greatest engine for job creation, but the economic backbone of our communities. When sales dry up, employees are let go, and businesses shutter, our towns and cities see revenues plummet and the cost of responding to this crisis goes through the roof. That’s why I recently introduced the Municipal Bonds Emergency Relief Act, which will authorize the Federal Reserve to buy municipal debt so that communities can keep vital public services going in these uncertain times and keep health workers, firefighters, and cops at work. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is first and foremost a public health crisis. The wealth of our economy ultimately rests on the health of our people, and we must take all social distancing measures seriously. But the decisions we make in the days ahead, especially when it comes to what kind of stimulus package makes its way through Congress, will determine how quickly our economy bounces back. 

New Jerseyans are resilient. And America has faced down great challenges before. I am confident that if we unite as a people and use every tool at our disposal, we will win the battle against COVID-19 and restore the promise of our economy.