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Connecticut offers restaurants, others a ‘bridge’ to coming federal relief

Gov. Ned Lamont outlined his grant program at a virtual news conference. Pictured below him is an interpreter for the deaf.

Connecticut is rushing to distribute $35 million in emergency grants to restaurants, bars and other small to mid-sized businesses as a bridge to the far larger COVID-19 pandemic relief coming from Washington, Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday.

Businesses whose revenues are down by at least 20% will go into a pool, with grants then calculated by a formula based on tax and payroll data readily available to the state, said David Lehman, the commissioner of economic and community development.

Lamont estimated that grants will be between $10,000 and $30,000, with the targets being about 2,000 businesses too big to qualify for a previous $50 million program that provided $5,000 grants to 10,000 businesses with 20 or fewer employees. The grants will be funded with money from the earlier CARES Act.

About one-third of the $900 billion in new federal relief will go to another round of forgivable loans through the Payroll Protection Program, with Connecticut businesses expected to get about 1% of that, or $3 billion.

“Let’s see how the allocation comes out. We’ll know in the next few days,” Lamont said at the first of his twice-a-week COVID briefings. “We’re going through that to make sure that we have a very good idea of exactly what we can expect, what you can expect.”

But obtaining the funds requires going through a participating bank to obtain a loan. The loans are forgivable under most circumstances, but getting the cash could take two months.

Connecticut hopes to issue its grants before the end of the year, with further details expected later this week.

Scott Dolch, the executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, said the state grants are small, but they will come at a crucial time for a hard-hit industry.

“This additional funding for small businesses will help hundreds and hundreds of those restaurants keep their doors open and keep more of their workers employed during the difficult winter months ahead. The result will be that more restaurants will be ready and able to be part of Connecticut’s economic recovery in 2021 as we finally begin moving beyond the pandemic,” Dolch said.

The promise of financial aid from Hartford and Washington comes at a pivotal time in the pandemic. Vaccinations are underway, with the initial doses going to health care workers, nursing home residents and other vulnerable populations.

Hospitalizations continued to stabilize, according to data released Monday, with the census falling by 24 patients to 1,143 since Friday, and the positivity rate of tests falling to 5.18%. But the state reported 95 deaths since Friday, bringing the death toll to 5,676 since March.

In Washington, D.C., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pressed for partisan advantage in the imminent passage of the bipartisan relief bill, blaming Democrats for refusing to accept a GOP version in July.

The bill will extend unemployment benefits and provide $600 payments to every adult earning no more than $75,000 annually, plus $600 for every dependent child. A married couple with an income of $150,000 would get $1,200 plus another $600 for any dependent child under 17.

“This is just some of the aid that will be heading Americans’ way in a matter of hours. No sprawling left-wing wish list, no unconstrained bailout for state and local government with no connection to COVID needs, just smart, targeted bipartisan policies,” McConnell said in remarks on the Senate floor.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called McConnell’s assessment “absurd.” Key items in the bill, including direct payments to individuals and extended unemployment benefits, were not in a version offered by McConnell just weeks ago.

“The two bills are nothing alike,” Schumer said.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said the relief package will allow governors to tighten restrictions on commercial activity.

“The more money we give to the states, the more they keep us in lockdown,” Paul said. “Every bailout dollar printed and passed out to the governors only allows these tin-pot dictators to perpetuate the lockdowns.”

At his briefing, Lamont said he sees no reason to tighten COVID restrictions. In Connecticut, manufacturers and most retail never closed, but restaurants and bars were closed in March. Restaurants reopened in phases, though indoor dining is currently limited to 50% of capacity. Bars never reopened.

Congressional Democrats called the federal relief compromise a good first step.

“This package is a critical first step forward that will help ameliorate the damage of the virus, but it is just that — a step,” said U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3rd District. “While vital relief, this cannot be the end of the story.”

President-elect Joe Biden supported the compromise, but he has promised a more robust package after he takes office. By then, DeLauro will be the chair of the Appropriations Committee.

“From inadequate investments to completely missing funding for our state and local governments, it is nowhere near what Congress must provide American families,” DeLauro said. “When we return in 2021, we must resume these negotiations and work with the Biden-Harris Administration to fill in the gaps of this package so the American people can rebuild and recover from this historic crisis.”

While there was no money for tax revenue lost due to the pandemic, there is $22 billion in aid to the states for testing and tracing of COVID-19.

Joe DeLong, the executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said the new relief was welcome, but cities and towns still hope that a subsequent measure early next year will provide aid to governments for lost tax revenue due to the pandemic.

“From my perspective, there is a lot of broad support for that in Washington D.C.,” he said.

The bill will provide $300 in supplemental unemployment benefits for 11 weeks, with more funding for gig workers who typically cannot qualify for jobless benefits. But a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor said exact benefits and applications details would await guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor.

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