MIDDLESEX - Though showing remarkable ingenuity and grit, small business owners across the state will likely require state and federal assistance in order to withstand the unprecedented financial pressures caused by the novel coronavirus emergency.

And though that help is now available, those same entrepreneurs, considered by many as the true lifeblood of America's economy, are now locked in a race to understand the application criteria and filing procedures governing many of those hastily-formed emergency relief programs.

At stake, say regional non-profit business advocates, is not only the future of the state's revitalized and vibrant downtown areas, but the economic well-being of thousands of area residents who depend upon the region's small businesses for a paycheck.

"So much has changed," said Megan Day, the executive director of Stoneham's Chamber of Commerce. "I would say that today is the first time, with everything happening so quickly, that we've had a clear understanding of what's available [for our businesses] and how people can get it."

"Your heart goes out to these people who you've worked with for a long time and that are trying to do a lot of good for the community. I feel bad that they're so powerless. I wish I could do more to help," agreed Reading/North Reading Chamber of Commerce Director Lisa Egan, who recently sat down with a reporter from The Reading Chronicle, a sister publication of The Middlesex East.

According to Day and Chris Kisiel, the executive director for Woburn's Business Association, ever since Governor Charles Baker earlier this month imposed the state's first restrictions on in-house dining and beverage services within Massachusetts restaurants, they've been stunned by the sheer pace and breadth of subsequent COVID-19 orders.

Ultimately determining the spread of the potentially fatal virus cannot be contained without imposing what are perhaps the most draconian emergency public safety measures in state history, Baker about a week ago ordered all "non-essential" businesses to shut their doors.

Subsequent directives and advisories have extended school closures until early May, outlawed public gatherings of more than 10 people, and urged all residents to isolate at home for the next two-weeks.

In a matter of just days, as underscored by last week's record number of 3.3 million new unemployment filings, the state's roaring economy — like much of the nation's — has been paralyzed.

"Honestly, I feel like the more people who stay in place, the shorter this will drag on," said Day, who as of late, has reluctantly begun discouraging citizens from heading out to patronize the handful of storefronts and downtown businesses that remain open.

"I don't want to hurt businesses, but if people stay home, these measures will work," continued the Stoneham resident. "We could ultimately be heading to a point where people can't go out at all. So right now, we're trying to connect businesses to resources so they can live this out and come out on the other side."

Information overload

Struggling to stay-on top of an enormous flow of information, area business advocates say local entrepreneurs, already trying to reinvent their status as brick-and-mortar ventures, are simultaneously contending with sudden changes in tax collection and filing deadlines, revisions to unemployment and health insurance benefit rules, and the implementation of new in-house policies to protect their workforce.

Though those temporary revisions to state and federal rules are aimed at providing much-needed financial and regulatory relief, when coupled with the torrent of incoming advisories about the federal government's COVID-19 Relief Act, it's easy to get overwhelmed, says Egan.

"[It's confusing], and I'm not managing a business like a restaurant that's trying to keep its employees paid and do takeout and be creative like so many of our restaurants are," the Reading-North Reading Chamber of Commerce director explained. "Our community is comprised of a lot of businesses that are 15 employees or less. Do they have a HR department that can keep track of that? No, and that's where I'm trying to fill the gap."

"There's definitely been a lot of confusion, even for us. We're running a seminar on the Small Business Administration piece, but even those things are fluid," Kisiel remarked in a separate interview. "[With some of the unemployment and benefit changes] people aren't sure what's right or wrong to put in their applications or who can apply. It's a lot [to keep up with]."

Just days ago, after quite a bit of grandstanding and frustrating political gamesmanship on both sides of the aisle, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), a staggering $2.2 trillion stimulus package that includes more than $349 billion for small business relief programs.

The highlight of the assistance offerings is "paycheck protection program", which allows small businesses with up to 500 employees to obtain up to $10 million to offset payroll expenses and cover mortgage, rent, and utility bills between Feb. 15 and June 30, 2020.

Though dubbed as a loan program, the paycheck protection program will actually function as a direct grant, so long as participants agree to maintain their current workforce numbers and continue to pay those staffers at existing rates.

The program also only covers salaries of up to $100,000 for each worker, with all compensation above that ceiling remaining the responsibility of the employer.

Besides that funding, the CARES Act also added $17 billion to extend existing loans granted by the federal Small Business Association (SBA), which is also expanding benefits under its economic injury disaster loan program.

Given the scope of the new initiatives, Day says Stoneham's Chamber of Commerce has shifted its entire concentration towards helping business owners understand and apply for the federal relief packages.

"We're a very event-driven organization, and all of a sudden, we're not doing events. So there's been a complete shift over to webinars and conference calls [with our members and officials from agencies like the SBA]," said Day. "We're trying to make it easier for businesses to get their arms around this and it's really going to be our complete focus over the next couple of weeks."

Practiced self-reliance

According to Kisiel and his colleagues in Reading and Stoneham, they've been amazed by the versatility of local businesses, many of which have already revolutionized their entire philosophy and marketing strategy in recent weeks.

"Most of our members are being smart and trying to protect themselves and their employees. So even if they're allowed to be open, they're working remotely or doing things like displaying showroom products virtually," the Woburn Business Association spokesperson said.

Retailers like restaurants have perhaps been the best-equipped to swivel to new delivery and takeout formats, but for other enterprises, the infrastructure and communication challenges posed by switches to a remote sales operation or work-from-home setting can be quite daunting.

For example, though many professional service providers like hair salons and beauty and massage parlors have been forced to shutter their businesses completely, personal fitness, competitive sports instructors, and art and yoga studio owners are trying to survive by offering classes and courses virtually.

"Since a lot of businesses will probably be living online for the foreseeable future, they're building up that skill-set. It's been a big change," said Day of the phenomenon.

Witnessing Woburn businesses reconfigure their entire operating structure during a time when multi-national corporations with far deeper pockets are looking to the federal government for handouts, Kisiel contends that small business owners have always stood out as models of self-sufficiency and independence.

For that reason, the Woburn Business Association director firmly believes that with the community's backing, the community's economic drivers will emerge whole from the COVID-19 crisis.

"You have to understand, small business owners are independent people," said Kisiel. "So more money is out there and that's great, but everybody just wants this to be over so they can get back to work."

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