WOBURN - With recent data on the city's COVID-19 outbreak showing yet another jump in local case positivity rates, Woburn's hard-hit small business owners can today begin applying for a new round of forgivable federal loans.

According to the federal Small Business Association (SBA), in order to ensure smaller enterprises get access to the next round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding, smaller community-based banks will get an exclusive first bite at the $284 billion in relief monies today and tomorrow.

Small businesses who were unable last spring and summer to obtain a PPP loan, which the federal government will completely forgive so long as firms use the funding to preserve jobs, are eligible beginning today to apply. Tomorrow, that application phase will be expanded to companies seeking a second round of PPP funding.

"This round of the PPP continues to prioritize millions of Americans employed by small businesses by authorizing up to $284 billion toward job retention and certain other expenses through March 31, 2021, and by allowing certain existing PPP borrowers to apply for a Second Draw PPP Loan," the US Treasury Department and SBA announced in a recent press release.

According to the SBA, PPP awards come with an interest rate of 1 percent, but applicants who spend at least 60 percent of the funding on payroll costs and maintain employee rolls and compensation levels for the length of the short-term loan are eligible for full debt forgiveness.

Any business with 500 or fewer employees can apply, including non-profit organizations, self-employed individuals, and independent contractors.

Loans can be used to cover eligible expenses during an eight to 24-week period. Those looking for additional information about the SBA offering should type sba.gov/ppp into a web browser.

The reintroduction of the special federal relief program comes as Woburn's businesses are increasingly buckling under the weight of statewide restrictions on economic activity

Specifically, under an emergency order enacted by Governor Charles Baker late last month, most types of local businesses must reduce their maximum customer capacities to 25 percent of the threshold specified in local occupancy permits.

The emergency mandate, which was just renewed last week by Baker until Jan. 24, effects virtually all types of private entrerprises and essentially halves the number of customers previously allowed within establishments at one time.

The new rules apply to retail operations, office buildings, personal service establishments like nail salons and barber shops, fitness centers and gyms, and restaurants.

"This pause will reduce allowable occupancy from current capacity levels of 40% to 25% in multiple sectors," initial state guidance from the Mass. Department of Public Health, released just prior to Christmas, explained.

"Notably, this capacity limit will now apply to restaurants. Capacity will be set at 25% of pre-COVID seating capacity and distancing between tables and other requirements will remain in place. Indoor and outdoor seating capacity must be calculated separately (rather than combining them)…Employees/staff are exempted from the capacity count," the public health officials further elaborated.

The latest restrictions on economic activity in Massachusetts comes as public health officials are tracking the highest surge in confirmed COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began in the spring.

In a weekly community-level report released last Thursday, DPH officials reported that Woburn total COVID-19 caseload jumped by some 223 cases over a 7-day period.

Tracking nearly 500 new cases over a longer 14-day period, state officials say that as of late last week, a total of 2,669 residents have tested positive for the viral infection since the Sars-Cov-2 virus first crossed into the city.

Various public health indicators suggest that Woburn continues to see a concerning level of COVID-19 transmissions, with at least 429 local residents over the past two-weeks being confined to their homes due to "active" infections.

Notably, the community's average daily incidence rate per 100,000 people, a metric that compares the number of infective cases to a city or town's overall population, surprisingly decreased in the latest state report from 77.1 to 73.8. However, Woburn's case positivity rate, or percentage of people tested who are confirmed to have contracted COVID-19, surged from 8.64 percent to 9.5 percent.

According to the SBA, significant features of the PPP program include:

• PPP borrowers can set their PPP loan’s covered period to be any length between 8 and 24 weeks to best meet their business needs;

• The Program’s eligibility is expanded to include 501(c)(6)s, housing cooperatives, direct marketing organizations, among other types of organizations;

• The PPP provides greater flexibility for seasonal employees;

• Certain existing PPP borrowers can request to modify their First Draw PPP Loan amount; and

• Certain existing PPP borrowers are now eligible to apply for a Second Draw PPP Loan.

• A borrower is generally automatically eligible for a Second Draw PPP Loan if the borrower will or has already used the full amount only for authorized uses, has no more than 300 employees, and can demonstrate at least a 25% reduction in gross receipts between comparable quarters in 2019 and 2020.

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