Editorial: Small businesses need PPP infusion

A recent University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO) forecast sees meaningful economic recovery in our tourism-dependent state taking hold in mid-2021. Meanwhile, many small businesses and nonprofits, which employ more than half of the state’s workforce, will be fighting to stay afloat.

Poised as the latest lifeline is the third round of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — a loan initiative established by the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act to help small businesses retain and pay their employees. Prompt screening of applicants and disbursement of the forgivable loans is imperative for struggling businesses.

In a welcome move, the U.S. Small Business Administration launched the round this week starting with an exclusive outreach through U.S. Treasury-certified Community Development Financial Institutions — banks and lenders that provide funding for businesses in underserved communities

During the initial PPP rollout last March, some large and well-financed businesses swooped in to claim relief money, edging out applicants with threadbare cash buffers that lacked relationships with lending banks or easy access to financial and legal expertise.

Helping mom-and-pop businesses make financial ends meet must continue to rate as a priority in Hawaii — the largest portion of our small-business sector is made up of operations with fewer than 100 employees, including many in which the employer’s first language is not English.

Targeted PPP funds are now being made available for the most vulnerable businesses, with specific amounts going to the community financial institutions. Among other favorable changes that stand to benefit Hawaii: restaurants and lodging businesses are eligible to get bigger loans.

While most eligible businesses may get a loan equal to 2.5 times their average monthly payroll expenses, restaurants and lodging operations may apply for loans equal to 3.5 times monthly payrolls —
with no loan exceeding $2 million.

The $900 billion federal relief package finally signed into law in late December includes a pot of $284 billion for PPP lending. But it does not replenish some funding for states and cities. Consequently, largely effective programs like the Hawaii Restaurant Card and Honolulu’s Small Business Relief and Recovery Fund are in the rear-view mirror — and fresh PPP funding cannot reach local employers a moment too soon.

In the absence of relief funding, the short-term outlook for Hawaii’s restaurants is dire. More than half may be forced to close for good by April without a significant boost in tourism, according to a survey conducted by the UH Public Policy Center. And Hawaii’s hotels, which are usually bustling at near-capacity limits near New Year’s, saw a statewide occupancy hovering at just 15% to 23%.

In regard to overall closures caused by the virus-
fueled economic downturn, the UHERO forecast, released last month, cites data from Yelp that shows Honolulu to be hardest-hit among U.S. metro areas, with roughly 11 permanently closed businesses and 16 temporarily closed businesses per 1,000 establishments.

Applying that rate to nearly 130,000 small businesses statewide, the report estimates that 1,400 closed permanently and more than 2,000 closed temporarily.

The losses tallied so far are disheartening. But a recent forecast, drafted by the state Council on Revenues, offers reason for some optimism: It suggests that if the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden succeeds in accelerating distribution of COVID-19 vaccine, a steady ramping up of tourism in Hawaii will soon follow.

In the meantime, though, more PPP funds circulating in the state are needed to help bridge the wide gap, between slow-paced recovery and an again-thriving economy.