2020 | Coronavirus

Application process for $20 million county emergency fund to open next week

A week after approving measure, County Council members frustrated by delay

share this

Emma Whelan, left, and Matt Cronin, owners of Astro Lab Brewing in Silver Spring, can beer with a new canning system that they purchased to handle to-go orders.

Photo from Astro Lab Brewing

Montgomery County plans to start accepting applications next week from small businesses and nonprofits seeking grants from a $20 million Public Health Emergency Grant Program.

Montgomery County Business Liaison Officer Daniel Koroma said he expects the application process to begin Monday or Tuesday. The fund was created to help businesses struggling during the coronavirus pandemic.

A website with information on how to apply launched on Wednesday afternoon.

Earlier on Wednesday afternoon, before the website went live, seven County Council members sent County Executive Marc Elrich a letter stating their disappointment over how long the process of opening applications was taking after the council expedited action in approving the funds for the grants.

“Despite those efforts and the clear public expectation that has been established,” the letter says, “a week has passed without clear guidance to the public on how the grants will be administered, limited information on when applications will be available, and no official determination for how long it will be before decisions are made and funding is disbursed.”

The County Council approved the grant fund as an expedited measure on March 31. There is $20 million for businesses and nonprofit organizations.

There is a separate $6 million fund to help individuals and families who need help during the pandemic. Included in that separate fund is $1 million to be distributed through nonprofit groups. Council Member Gabe Albornoz told Bethesda Beat in a text Wednesday night that the applications for the relief funds for individuals and families will be available next week as well. The health and human services department is finalizing the regulations and process, he said.

Through the $20 million relief fund, small businesses and nonprofits with 100 employees or fewer will be eligible for up to $75,000 in a grant. The money can be used to cover employee wages and benefits, taxes, debt, rent, or other operating expenses.

Twenty-five percent, or $5 million, will be specifically reserved for restaurants and retail storefronts.

The applicants must have their primary place of business in Montgomery County, more than 50% of their employees working in the county, or more than 50% of gross sales in the county. They must be able to demonstrate financial losses of 25% or more.

Koroma said the county hasn’t decided whether it will close the applications at any point.

“It will most likely be rolling,” he said of the applications. “There’s no specific cut-off date that you need to apply by on the application.”

The grants will be awarded on a rolling basis except for the portion set aside for restaurants and retail stores.

Koroma said he’s received around 35 calls a day this week from businesses asking when the grants will be available.

“Twenty million is a lot of money, but it’s really not when it’s at the scale that we’re dealing with at this crisis,” he said.

Koroma stressed that businesses would need to have the required documentation on hand when applying, so it can be submitted right away.

“The faster they are able to submit that application, the sooner they will get a response from us,” he said.

He said he didn’t know how long it would take for businesses to receive money once they have applied.

“It really depends on the volume [of applications] we get,” he said. “The goal is to get it through to the businesses and nonprofits as soon as we can.”

Help ‘not coming quick enough’

Emma Whelan, owner of Astro Lab Brewing in Silver Spring, said small businesses need help faster than it’s coming.

Whelan’s husband, Greg Whelan, owns McGinty’s Public House in Silver Spring. He temporarily closed the doors of the restaurant when carry-out orders weren’t bringing in enough revenue.

The two businesses are the couple’s only source of income, she said.

About 13 employees have been furloughed at the microbrewery and 46 employees have been furloughed at McGinty’s. Astro Lab is bringing in about 20% of the revenue it usually makes, she said.

“It’s such a period of unknown. I, like many of the small business owners, are trying to reduce their collateral damage,” Emma Whelan said. “I just furloughed everyone to try to reduce costs and keep those at a minimum.”

Any financial assistance for the businesses would be a huge relief, she said.

Elrich announced the efforts to create an emergency grant program outside McGinty’s during a press conference on March 20.

“Most of the grants and loans and federal assistance are all delayed at the moment,” Whelan said. “So applications are in and people are waiting and stress levels are just increasing as days go on. … The assistance is not coming quick enough to help.”

Landlords and credit card companies might establish payment plans or defer payments, but those bills will still come at some point, Whelan said.

“It’s very unsettling and the longer it goes on, the more unsettling it gets,” she said. “Our bills are piling up and we have the promise of some grants and loans. But they still haven’t come to fruition and they’re not going to cover everything that we need them to cover.”

Julie Verratti, co-owner of Denizens Brewing Co. in Silver Spring and Riverdale Park, said she wasn’t surprised how long it was taking for applications to open.

She and her partners have had to furlough more than 30 employees — the majority of their workforce — and revenues are down 80%.

“We’re scraping by with direct-to-consumer deliveries, but those are starting to slow down,” she said.

The local, state and federal governments need to act faster, she said.

“It’s like slapping a Band-Aid on someone who just got their arm chopped off,” she said. “We need something to be happening right now. There is no time for delays.”

Verratti said the county was generous with offering $20 million to small businesses, but she didn’t think it was enough.

“They’re going to be inundated [with applicants]. Nobody is going to get $75,000 unless they’re rejecting 90% of the applicants,” she said.

Council Vice President Tom Hucker and Council Member Will Jawando did not sign the letter of dissatisfaction from the County Council on Wednesday

Hucker told Bethesda Beat he did not sign because he did not get the chance to read it and he was in touch with the county staff on when to expect announcements.

Jawando told Bethesda Beat that he did not sign the letter because he felt it wasn’t necessary or collaborative.

The letter said the “lack of urgency is disappointing” and contradicted the council’s intent of immediately providing relief to business owners.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.