As the coronavirus pandemic has swept across the state, several area small businesses applied last month for grant and loan opportunities from the state’s Department of Commerce, seeking relief for rent, bills and overall payroll expenses.

Some of those business owners said recently they are still waiting to hear back on whether they will receive any money, due to the large number of applications statewide.

Karen Glenn Hood, a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Commerce, said as of Friday afternoon, the department had received 17,219 grant applications and 8,032 loan applications.

Secretary of Commerce Kelly Schulz announced those loan and grant opportunities last month — up to $50,000 in loans, at a zero percent interest for up to 12 months, and up $10,000 in grants for small businesses with 50 employees or less.

Steven Winder, owner of Clue IQ Escape Room in Frederick, said he’s had to lay off all of his part-time staff, around seven employees, and shut down completely for about the last month.

Winder said there is a lot of confusion about what relief might be coming for his business, and other small businesses like his. He added he understands the state’s Department of Commerce and Small Business Administration at the federal level are probably overwhelmed with applications.

But many big box stores — like Walmart, Lowe’s, Home Depot and others —have remained open through the pandemic, he said.

“To me, it seems like small businesses are going to suffer massively through this … and for whatever reason, the big box retail stores are going to be protected,” Winder said.

Matt Riley and Randy Thompson are general manager and president/CEO of Big Cork Vineyards in Rohrersville, respectively.

Riley said before the pandemic started impacting business, roughly 35 employees worked at the vineyard. Now, less than 10 remain.

Business has shifted from vineyard visits to online merchandise and wine shipping, but it hasn’t made up for the loss in revenue, Riley said.

Thompson said he’s concerned about how loans/grants will be distributed at the state and federal level, and that it may fall back to a first-come, first-served basis. He and Riley said they’ve also applied for opportunities through the Small Business Administration at the federal level.

“What we have been finding with these programs is it becomes a money grab and certain people get their application in first and they get the money and nobody else does,” Thompson said of the overall loan/grant process. “It’s an unfettered process that should be looked at.”

At the state level, Hood asked for patience from businesses as colleagues in her department are reviewing thousands of applications. Staff was added from other agencies and the division is working around the clock to review those, she added.

“Ultimately we need to ensure the loans and grants are going to Maryland businesses with a demonstrated need, and as stewards of taxpayer dollars, we are required to follow our internal review protocols like we would do with any other loan or grant application we receive,” Hood said.

Some area businesses have been exercising that patience, as they’ve submitted loan or grant applications. They’ve gotten email responses that their application has been received and is undergoing a review by department officials.

That includes Nick Clabaugh, who owns Atlantic Tent Rentals, a tent/party equipment company in Walkersville.

“I’m still waiting to hear back... they [Department of Commerce] sent me an email that we’ve had a lot of applicants and it’s going to take a little longer than they thought,” Clabaugh said.

But others are concerned that with no income coming in, they need a response on whether they’re getting money sooner, rather than later. That included Steve Baranski, owner of the Boulder Yard, an indoor rock climbing gym right outside the city of Frederick.

Baranski said he has applied for the state and federal relief, and believes that while some paperwork/information is necessary, there probably is too much red tape in the overall process.

With the technology and documentation available already to state and federal agencies, the money could be coming more quickly, he added.

The state’s loans/grants will be distributed to qualifying businesses based on a maximum of three months of cash operating expenses like rent, utilities and other costs for qualifying businesses, said Hood.

Hood added that for perspective on the speed of loan/grant dispersal, the Small Business Administration takes about 21 days on average to process loans for businesses in a non-emergency situation.

Sherry Myers, owner of the Thurmont Kountry Kitchen, said he hasn’t had time to finish applications for the loan/grant programs, as she’s spent more time working on the carryout side of her business.

“It’s just a matter of sitting down and when you cut your staff down to a bare minimum … your time is spent working inside the restaurant instead of these things,” she said of the applications.

But some business owners, like Baranski, need to see some relief in the next couple of weeks.

“Now it’s just a waiting game … do I get it, do I not get it?” Baranski said of receiving any money. “Am I going to lose everything I spent the last 12 years of my life working on to build?”

Follow Steve Bohnel on Twitter: @Steve_Bohnel

Steve Bohnel is the county government reporter for the Frederick News-Post. He can be reached at sbohnel@newspost.com. He graduated from Temple University, with a journalism degree in May 2017, and is a die-hard Everton F.C. fan.

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