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Op-Ed: Small Business Assistance Grants – a vaccine for the economy

There’s nothing like a shutdown to make you realize how dependent we all are on the services and products small businesses provide. Those hot and spicy wings at your favorite restaurant, the day care for your young child, a plumber to fix the leaky faucet in your kitchen or a dentist to make your tooth stop hurting.

On the weekends, it’s the gym with the fancy rowing machine you like so much, the bowling alley where you meet up with your friends and the theater staging a revival of Annie. Not to mention hair salons. Like many other Northampton County residents, I discovered just how important my barber is for my personal grooming needs.

Local shops might be small, but they are a critical driver of our economy, accounting for two-thirds of net new jobs and providing 44% of economic activity. Small businesses give individuals an opportunity to generate an income higher than they might obtain by working for a corporation. They also form networks among themselves, boosting employment in the area as they hire accountants to handle their payroll, rent space in warehouses to store their product or contract with gardeners to trim the shrubbery.

More nimble and adaptable than large companies, society relies on small businesses for innovation. When the pandemic hit in March, and PPE was in short supply, it was a local seamstresses who made facemasks for non-first responders like myself. When the market became saturated, small businesses showed their other strength — promoting competition. It’s why facemasks are now a fashion trend with people displaying their love of cats or flowers or, in my case, the Eagles.

For these reasons, and many others, I knew it was important for the County of Northampton to help our small businesses during this pandemic. It wasn’t their fault they had to scale back or cease operations. Quarantines, shutdowns and travel restrictions were necessary to protect the community. In fact, the closings of non-essential businesses and services likely saved lives.

Coronavirus isn’t only having a devastating effect on our public health, its long-term impact on our economy has the potential to be just as disruptive. That’s why I decided to put $10 million, out of the $26.7 million Northampton County received in CARES Act funds, towards Small Business Assistance Grants. The grants, with a maximum amount of $15,000 per business, can be used for rent, payroll and other operating expenses.

The County teamed up with the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce to process applications. The program was so popular, we held four rounds for submission, completing the final one in early December. In all, the County distributed just over $10 million to 766 small businesses.

Recipients covered a wide-range of companies from all corners of the County; from a photography studio in Nazareth to a gym in Hellertown; from an auto parts store in Wind Gap to a personal security firm in Walnutport; from a spa in Stockertown to a food mart in Easton, and from a hotel in Mount Bethel to a construction firm in Bethlehem.

These grants won’t solve all the problems these businesses face — only the end of the pandemic can do that — but the funds will help keep them, their employees and their landlords afloat until the economy improves. Several owners have gotten in touch with me to say how thankful they are to be able to pay their rent, make payroll and restock their inventory. Many described this as the worst year in their company’s history. More than a few admitted they’d been on the verge of having to close until the grant came through.

We are looking for other ways to help these businesses as well. Customers and clients won’t go to concerts or gyms or dance studios until the pandemic is under control. In December, the County sponsored college classes for COVID-19 Risk Management for businesses, municipalities and child care/senior center organizations.

Although a vaccine is on the way, I encourage everyone to continue to do their part to prevent transmission of the virus by socially distancing, wearing a mask and frequently washing their hands. And, if we want our small businesses to survive, we need to support them. Please shop local. If you don’t want to get close to people, most stores and restaurants are offering curb-side service. Consider buying a gift card for those shops you plan to patronize once the virus is in retreat or brighten someone else’s day with a delivery of flowers or chocolate.

We need our small businesses. They are an important resource for our quality of life. The pandemic won’t last forever, but its economic impacts will be extended if we have to rebuild shops, stores and services from scratch, so please support them now so they can serve us later.

Lamont McClure is the County Executive of Northampton County.

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