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Coronavirus In Ohio: Federal Loans Offer Lifeline To Struggling Businesses

Tom Chang in the dining room at Tiger + Lily.
Nick Evans
Tom Chang in the dining room at Tiger + Lily.

Downtown Columbus isn’t exactly a ghost town, but it feels empty—hollowed out. Bars are closed, as are most retail storefronts, but a few restaurants are trying to hang on with takeout and delivery.

Tiger + Lily is one of the hold-outs. But in the empty dining room, with chairs up on tables, owner Tom Chang admits things aren’t looking great.  

“Being here since Monday, we see the numbers continually drop,” he says. “So reality is setting in that it’s not getting better, it’s getting worse.”

He says business is down 70-80%. The restaurant has been open for about three years, and before the pandemic, Chang says they were planning to expand.

“I think towards the end of last year, we said the numbers look great, this year is going to be the year,” he explains. "But now, with everything that’s going on, I’m just hoping we can keep this one open.”

As the state logs more cases of COVID-19 coronavirus, Gov. Mike DeWine issued a public health order shutting all bars and dine-in restaurants in the state. Ohio banned gatherings of more than 50 people, and the state Health Department issued a "stay at home" order restricting what businesses could stay open.

Coronavirus In Ohio: Live Coverage

Tiger + Lily was just about to clear its debt, and Chang notes with chagrin they’ll have to borrow money to keep the business running. Still, he says they’ll accept any help they can get.

That help may come in the form of an SBA Loan. The federal Small Business Administration is now taking applications for Ohio companies impacted by COVID-19.

These Disaster Assistance Loans are a potential lifeline for Ohio companies struggling to do things like keep the lights on or meet payroll. Columbus district director Everett Woodel says the loan program typically shows up in the wake of a natural disaster.

“I’ll give you a for instance,” Woodel says. “It was just utilized recently in Dayton, Ohio. My team and I were on the ground there with FEMA setting up our response centers, and in that case, $28 million was loaned out to small businesses in the Dayton area that were afflicted by the tornadoes.”

The Disaster Assistance Loan terms will sound familiar to people who have applied for a mortgage. For-profit businesses can get a 30-year fixed rate loan at 3.75% interest, and non-profits can borrow at 2.75%. Loans are capped at $2 million.

Woodell acknowledges some businesses will likely be able to find better terms in the private market, but with 950,000 small businesses in the state, the program can serve as a backstop for those that can’t.

“If you really look at the numbers, you know they’re 46% of the jobs in the state of Ohio, they work for small businesses,” Woodell says. “So it’s really critical that we keep them up and running because any kind of recovery is going to be dependent on them participating.”

Elizabeth Blount McCormick has seen business crater at her travel agency, Uniglobe, and she says an SBA loan will be critical.

“I need it to survive—honestly,” she says. “You know, I have people that depend on me, and I need to be able to take care of them and take care of all of our clients.”

Ironically, the disruption has meant she’s had to work harder because she’s been busy negotiating refunds for her clients.

During this interview, Blount McCormick got a text message saying Ohio got approval for its loan program. She went straight to her computer to double check. It’s become something of a nervous habit for her in the past few days.

“We keep looking and looking, it’s been refreshed over and over again,” she said. “Finally, now, Ohio’s been listed. But, [I’ve been] losing sleep over that, right? Because we want to be one of the first people to respond and apply to it.”

Both Blount McCormick and Chang have had to make staffing cuts, but they recognize the current slowdown won’t last forever. Blount McCormick signed two new contracts last week, and says she’ll need her team to be ready to roll once business picks back up, whenever that may be.

The Ohio Department of Health makes the following recommendations to protect yourself from illness:

  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; dry hands with a clean towel or air dry hands.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are unavailable.
  • Cover your mouth with a tissue or sleeve when sneezing or coughing. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick.

Ohio's coronavirus call center is open to answer questions from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. The hotline number is 1-833-4-ASK-ODH or 1-833-427-5634. More information is available at coronavirus.ohio.gov.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.