As small-business owners across California anxiously await distribution of the latest round of stimulus checks while pandemic restrictions linger on, some Orange County cities—along with the Board of Supervisors—have created relief programs of their own.
Laguna Beach, Costa Mesa, and Mission Viejo are among the cities that have created their own grant programs to aid small businesses and restaurants, while district supervisors have reached into the county’s general fund to allocate more resources toward relief efforts.
“Along with amusement parks, which were never even allowed to open up, it’s been a struggle,” Supervisor Lisa Bartlett told The Epoch Times. “All business sectors have been affected.”
Officials throughout the county hope the new grants—combined with a state-funded relief package for small businesses that California rolled out on Dec. 30, 2020—will be enough to keep the struggling businesses afloat long enough to survive the regional stay-at-home order and the effects of the ongoing pandemic caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, which causes the disease known as COVID-19.
The Board Steps Up
The latest federal COVID-19 relief bill doesn’t include aid for local or state governments—so Orange County’s district supervisors have stepped in to create relief funds for struggling business owners through the county’s general fund.
Bartlett, the county’s Fifth District supervisor, distributed nearly $10,000 each to more than 1,500 businesses in her district last month. She said another relief program will be ready by the end of January.
“Until we can get out of the stay-at-home order, it’s going to be really difficult to get our economy back up and open and revitalized again,” Bartlett said.
The board voted last month to allocate $10 million from the general fund to provide relief for each district’s business community. Each supervisor received $2 million to distribute within their own districts.
Bartlett called the economic impacts from the ongoing pandemic “alarming,” and said county businesses had to cut back on staff and lay people off in a short period.
“Our unemployment rate as of February  was at 2.9 percent, and in four months it went up to 16 percent,” she said. “And now, I think it’s somewhere between 8 and 10 percent. But that’s still very alarming, when you think that 1 out of 10 people in Orange County might be unemployed.”
Supervisor Donald Wagner told The Epoch Times the county provided $2 million from its general fund to aid struggling small businesses in his Third District, in addition to the board’s initial $15 million in CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funding for each of the districts to distribute.
The CARES Act money was distributed pro rata to each city based on their population, and they created their own programs, Wagner said.
But “most of that money’s already been spent,” he said. “In the grand scheme of things, sadly, it wasn’t a lot for any individual business.”
Wagner said he wants to see Gov. Gavin Newsom lighten the restrictions and allow some of the small businesses to reopen. He said businesses in his district “are crippling,” so reopening safely “can and should be done.”
“I’m hearing from a lot of businesses that are talking about how they’re just barely hanging on or that the next shutdown will destroy them,” Wagner said. “I think a lot of them are trying to find ways to just scratch and claw and stay open as best they possibly can.”
Supervisor Andrew Do promoted the board’s latest economic support program. In a press release, he said it was “imperative that we help bring real and meaningful assistance to help keep our small businesses open.”
“We are nine months into the pandemic and small-business owners don’t know how much longer they can remain open,” Do said.
City Manager Dennis Wilberg told The Epoch Times that Mission Viejo has rolled out a $1 million small-business fund to help the city’s struggling businesses, which he said have become increasingly frustrated by the state’s unpredictable mandates.
“I know a number of restaurants that we deal with more than others have indicated that they just bought enough food to get through the week, and then they’re shut down,” Wilberg said.
“There’s a growing frustration with the number of times that the rules change and how quickly they change.”
Wilberg said that a majority of the applicants so far have been restaurants—though retailers, print shops, chiropractors, dentists, and home businesses have also applied—and that the city is in the process of approving them.
“We’re up to about 140 that have applied,” Wilberg said. During the first week, he said, the city “focused on the ones that we were most familiar with,” approving 15 grants before Christmas and issuing checks.
“The ones that we’ve approved, all of the documentation that we would require was provided,” he said, adding that the city is now reviewing applications and getting the proper data needed from the businesses “to justify the grant fund.”
Wilberg said they’re not trying to be “too bureaucratic,” but at the same time, “that’s taxpayer money, so we need to be careful and make sure we’re not giving a grant out to somebody that’s not going to spend it properly.”
Though there’s no limit on how many businesses can apply, Wilberg said there’s still about $700,00 in relief to be distributed. He said 50 percent of the fund came from the city’s reserves, while the other half came from the city’s share of CARES Act funds.
The City of Laguna Beach has dug into its reserves to create LB CARES, a one-time grant relief program designed to help struggling businesses impacted by the pandemic.
The program, which began on Jan. 8, will provide roughly $850,000 to help restaurants, bars, and retailers. While $200,000 has been set aside for retailers, $650,000 is earmarked for restaurants and bars.
Laguna Beach City Manager John Pietig told The Epoch Times the financing came out of the city’s $13.2 million general fund reserves.
Restaurants can receive up to $5,000 each, while retailers can get from $2,000 to $3,000.
Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Whalen said the bridge grants were designed to augment other relief programs.
“Our objective in approving this program is to help keep our restaurants and retailers going until they can apply for additional assistance through county, state and federal programs in early 2021,” Whalen said in a statement.
“A direct assistance program like this is a first for the City but these are unprecedented times demanding new approaches and decisive action.”
Up to 130 restaurants and 100 retail establishments will be eligible for the grants, to be awarded on a first come, first served basis. Though grant applications for retailers closed on Jan. 5, the deadline for restaurants and bars has been extended until Jan. 19.
City Manager Pietig said Laguna Beach has “another $6 million in a disaster recovery fund” still potentially available, but that reserve is generally limited to help the city recover from natural disasters.
The Costa Mesa City Council approved a $1.9 million Bridge Grant Program last month for its ailing restaurants and personal care services.
The city’s grant program was broken down into two phases. The first phase, which has already closed, offered a one-time $10,000 bridge grant to applicants that had already received a previous small-business grant from the city.
The second phase of the program is for small businesses that haven’t yet received a city grant. It also offers $10,000 one-time stipends to approved businesses, and is scheduled to begin sometime later this month.
In order to qualify, businesses must show the need for financial support due to the impact of the ongoing pandemic and the regional stay-at-home order. The businesses must show either that they were deemed nonessential, sales were down more than 25 percent from the three-month period prior to Feb. 15, 2020, the business had to lay off at least one employee, or one or more employees contracted COVID-19 while at work.
According to the city, Costa Mesa has already distributed more than $2.7 million in grants to 263 businesses within city limits.
Mayor Katrina Foley didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment by The Epoch Times.
Struggling businesses looking for additional assistance had until Jan. 8 to apply for the first round of California’s Small Business COVID-19 Relief Grant Program.
Businesses with an annual revenue up to $100,000 are eligible for a $5,000 grant each. Those with revenue between $100,000 and $1 million are eligible for $15,000, and those with revenue of $1 million to $2.5 million are eligible for $25,000.
Holding On to Hope
Meanwhile, restaurants owners throughout the county have said they are barely hanging on.
Chef and 230 Forest Avenue owner Marc Cohen told The Epoch Times he applied for the LB CARES money, which was distributed after Jan. 8. Additionally, he applied for a $25,000 state grant.
“At least it helps buy more supplies and to-go containers, take care of the employees, and pay the rent, and so it all counts,” Cohen said.
“We have about three-quarters of our staff on unemployment. But we’re just trying to keep the lights on, just a little bit each day, and that’s all you can ask.”
Other county residents—such as chef and TV food critic Andrew Gruel, owner of Slapfish seafood restaurant in Huntington Beach—have created their own relief funds for struggling small businesses.
Gruel’s GoFundMe account to help struggling restaurant workers has reached nearly $250,000; his goal is $1 million, to be redistributed to help employees in an industry “in economic freefall.”
In a previous interview, Gruel told The Epoch Times he was getting “hundreds and hundreds of emails from people who just wanted to share their stories,” so he thought it would be beneficial to put his restaurateur spotlight to good use and create the GoFundMe account.
He said regional restrictions imposed by the state are “the government stepping in and permanently closing our businesses.”
“I think we’re going to see just mass … closures of all these restaurants,” Gruel said. “Everyone is on the final thread.”