Written by Will Springstead in The Post-Star on June 4, 2020

The town of Chester held an online meeting Thursday, featuring many local business and county, state and federal government officials, on reopening the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, kicked things off with some welcome news.

Stefanik said the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program — pending President Donald Trump’s expected signature — is being extended from eight weeks to 24.

Michael Bittel, the Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce president, explained what that will mean.

“It means that if somebody restarted their business on June 1 but got the loan in May, your clock doesn’t have to start so soon,” Bittel said. “You might not have been able to use it before June 30.”

Bittel added that the full-time equivalent headcount rule also has been amended. It originally said a business’ headcount in February 2020 had to be the same on June 30. That, however, has been extended to Dec. 31. Also, businesses won’t be penalized if they tried but failed to hire back all their employees.

“If you in good faith tried to get your employees to come back — and this is something we’re struggling with because unemployment insurance offers $600 a week through July 31 — in writing, to these folks to get their jobs back and they deny it, you won’t be penalized on those FTEs,” Bittel said. “Also, if your business has been affected by COVID, and you’ve had negative consequences due to COVID and you can’t hire everyone back, that’s also taken into account through your bank.”

Business owners who wanted their PPP loans forgiven had to use 75 percent of the loan for payroll and the other 25 percent for rent, interest on a mortgage or utilities. That has changed to 60 percent on payroll and 40 percent on the other three expenses.

“That’s a boon,” Bittel said.

Finally, the deferral on the first payment had been six months after a business’ last day of its eight weeks. That has been changed to 10 months. And the loan maturity date has been extended from two years to five years.

Ed Bartholomew, Warren County EDC president, said his office has worked with businesses not eligible for SBA loans, offering loans of up to $15,000 for up to four years, with an interest rate of 4 percent and deferral from principal and interest for the first six months.

“We felt that helping these struggling businesses in Warren County to get off the ground the next six months, not to make any payment whatsoever is a helpful tool,” Bartholomew said. “(It’s) very flexible in what it can be used for — rent going forward, it could be used for payroll if you’re not in a PPP, marketing capital for advertising or creating/upgrading your website.”

State Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, and Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, several times expressed frustration with the inconsistencies of the state’s reopening rules.

“We really are getting way down on the numbers (of COVID-19 illnesses),” Little said. “I think we’re doing OK. Phase 3 is June 17, and we keep seeing things get moved up and we keep pushing to get them moved up. I think it’s time to move on and find what our new normal is. There are just so many people suffering because of this.”

As an example of inconsistencies, Stec brought up Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision Wednesday to allow restaurants to offer outdoor dining. Stec and many on the videoconference agreed that was welcome, but said it came with more questions.

“I’m getting questions like, ‘I have a permanent roof over the porch of my building, (but) it’s not an awning.’ And the executive order is very clear: no permanent roofs. So how do you tell that restaurant, ‘If it’s an awning, you can open, but it’s not an awning, so you can’t.’ I’m getting calls from restaurants that don’t have outdoor seating. ‘Great, so we’re at a competitive disadvantage.’ I get it. Believe me I’m pushing as hard as I can to get everybody open as quickly as possible and as safely as possible.”

Stec said he is also hoping state authorities revisit their decision to allow stores in malls that have exterior entrances to reopen, but not stores completely within a mall.

A restaurant owner in Chestertown asked how long businesses must wait for the next phases when the medical data show things in the Capital Region are much better than downstate. Stefanik said she, too, is frustrated by Cuomo sometimes not listening to the local control groups that he formed.

“It’s been very frustrating for small businesses, as the rug continues to get pulled out from under them and goal posts continue to be moved. Your frustration is heard. I think decisions are best made at the local level, the county level,” Stefanik said.

Another person asked, with the Fourth of July approaching, how much tourism advertising will be done? Joanne Conley, director of the Warren County Tourism Department, said her office has advertised that the county will welcome folks when the time is right. With reopening continuing and July 4th approaching, the advertising effort will be increased.

Follow Will Springstead on Twitter @WSpringsteadPSV.

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