Bad for business

SBA to help companies affected by pandemic

BY STEVE CLARK

STAFF WRITER

The worry was unmistakable in Joe Kenney’s voice as he described the beating his business is taking as a result of the coronavirus, or COVID-19.

The phone at Cobbleheads, the restaurant and bar he founded in 1996, has been ringing off the wall, customers calling to cancel catering jobs Kenney had lined up for April and May, he said.

He made the decision to cancel the restaurant’s popular St. Patrick’s Day celebration even before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised against gatherings of more than 10 people, so Kenney is being creative and promoting curbside takeout of the traditional St. Paddy’s dish, corned beef and cabbage.

It’s something new for Cobbleheads, which has never done a lot of takeout business. Customers who do come in are being seated with an empty table between them and the other closest diners in the name of social distancing, Kenney said. The restaurant has installed hand sanitizers at both entrances. Staff are continually wiping down menus and disinfecting other frequently-touched surfaces, he said.

“It’s something we never ever faced before,” he said. “A hurricane you can get over in three or four days.”

A worst-case scenario in which Kenney loses most or all of his business could mean the end of Cobbleheads, he said.

“Shutting down two, three, four weeks, weeks you can leave 25 years on the table with what we put into this place,” he said.

Kenney worries what would become of his 30-plus workers, catering staff and part-timers.

“That’s what scares me, all my good people who have been with me 20 years,” he said. “All of a sudden we have no work? This is devastating, what’s happening around the world right now.”

Compounding the anxiety is the uncertainty at not even knowing if coronavirus is here, Kenney said.

“All we can do is try to help, do what the health professionals are telling us to do,” he sad. “Try to keep the workforce busy without going broke at the same time. … Our margins are so thin in the restaurant industry.”

Iselle Perez, co-owner of Vermillion Restaurant & Watering Hole, said the landmark Brownsville eatery has installed hand-sanitizer stations for customers and is doing deep cleans on booths and tables between seatings in response to the coronavirus scare. The percentage of customers ordering curbside takeout has grown substantially over the last four days, she said.

“Right now our priority is the health of our customers and the health of our staff,” Perez said.

As long as the restaurant follows recommended precautions, she feels it’s OK to keep the business running normally, Perez said, though Vermillion is ready to make changes if the situation warrants.

“For right now, for us and all the business in Brownsville, we are taking it day by day,” she said.

Angela Burton, director of the U.S. Small Business Administration Lower Rio Grande Valley District Office, said help will be available for eligible small businesses facing lost revenue stemming from the coronavirus. SBA will make individual economic injury disaster loans up to $2 million to eligible businesses once a state declares an emergency, which Gov. Greg Abbott did on March 13 for all 254 Texas counties.

Normally in a disaster, the damage to businesses is visible and thus easy to assess, but in the case of coronavirus SBA is relying on businesses to self report economic injury before a final declaration acceptance can be made by the SBA administrator, which will cause the loan money to flow.

“What we’re doing, and what I’m asking folks to do, is help gather economic-impact data if you’re already being affected or impacted,” Burton said. “That way we can send this information to our office of disaster, which will work closely with the governor’s office to make that determination. … We are currently pending a declaration acceptance for the state of Texas. Once that happens, and I see it happening very soon, then we can start taking applications.”

The SBA point of contact for small businesses to report economic injury is Josh Patton, who can be reached at (956) 427-8533 ext. 225. He can also be reached via email at joshua.patton@sba.gov.

The SBA loans, meant to provide affected businesses with working capital to pay employees, make loan payments, pay bills and such, are available at a 3.75 percent interest rate to small businesses without credit available elsewhere, and at 2.75 percent to nonprofits without credit available elsewhere. Businesses with business interruption insurance or other types of lost-revenue support are not eligible for the loans, Burton said.

“The terms are case by case depending on the borrower’s ability to pay,” she said. “It could be up to a maximum of 30 years.”

Burton said the SBA is “committed to providing the most effective and customer-focused response possible.”

“Our office is open,” she said. “We want to make sure that folks know that they’re supported. Anybody that knows me knows that’s true.”

For details on applying for an economic injury loan through SBA, visit www.sba.gov/disaster.