Veteran Hawaii bankruptcy attorney Chuck Choi is used to seeing businesses in bad shape, yet he shudders to think how bad it’s going to be for local small businesses before the chokehold is released on the state economy.
“I’m afraid the prognosis for small businesses is dire,” he said.
Choi has received a flurry of calls after many business shutdowns were ordered by government leaders to inhibit the new coronavirus’ spread, and in many cases he can’t see even bankruptcy saving them because companies typically have to be operating to reorganize debts.
“I just don’t know how these small businesses can weather the pandemic for more than a few months,” he said. “I don’t know how most small businesses can weather the stress.”
Considerable financial aid for small businesses is being rolled out by the federal government, but details on how such programs will work were just finalized in recent days and it’s unclear how quickly aid can be delivered or whether there will be enough.
Meanwhile, expenses continue to accrue for companies on items that include rent, inventory, insurance, taxes and employees or furloughed employee benefits.
“It’s scary,” said Mark Hollander, CEO of kamaaina shirt maker and retailer Crazy Shirts.
Hollander said he was forced to close all 26 of the company’s stores in Hawaii and its nine stores in other states while furloughing most of his roughly 350 workers, who retain benefits but not pay as part of a difficult decision for the company’s survival.
“It’s hard,” he said. “It’s a juggling act that no one is used to. Everyone’s scrambling.”
Hollander is most hopeful about a program to cover small-business payrolls approved by the federal government March 27 and being deployed by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The Paycheck Protection Program offers small-business loans up to $10 million to primarily cover up to eight weeks of payroll expenses. The loans, which also can be used for mortgage, rent and utility expenses, can be completely forgiven.
“We can’t wait to bring our employees back and are hopeful that this PPP program will move us a long way to doing that,” Hollander said.
Jane Sawyer, SBA Hawaii district office director, has urged all small businesses to apply quickly, and said some standard SBA loan rules have been waived, including limits on assets, reserves and credit lines.
Sawyer, who described the program Tuesday at a special state Senate committee hearing, also said owners of related or similar businesses — such as restaurant or retail chains that normally wouldn’t qualify as a small business if they have more than 500 employees — can qualify. Businesses with fewer than 500 employees typically qualify as a small business.
“Say you own a number of restaurants … each one could be considered independent,” she said during the hearing.
Private lenders including banks have been enlisted to make the loans, which earn them fees and are guaranteed by the SBA. Some lenders started accepting applications Friday. Others are still working on it, and some are struggling with or anticipating application overflow.
For instance, Bank of Hawaii announced Friday that it is accepting applications only from existing customers, at least initially, because of the expected high application volume.
Sawyer said it has been hectic hammering out many program details in recent days.
“This is definitely one of those times when we’re flying the airplane as we build it and people are trying to get on,” she said at the Senate hearing.
Sawyer also said businesses should apply as quickly as they can because $350 billion is allocated nationwide, and loans are first come, first served.
SBA also is offering small businesses economic injury disaster loans of up to $2 million that can be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that can’t be paid because of impacts from COVID-19.
The interest rate for these loans is 3.75% for small businesses without credit available elsewhere, and 2.75% for nonprofits. Repayment terms can be as long as 30 years.
Dennis Ling, administrator of the Business Development and Support Division of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, said his agency will help connect small businesses with government aid. He expects a rush of applicants, based on getting 4,000 responses from local businesses in three days to an invitation to assist.
“We know our businesses are suffering,” he said at Tuesday’s Senate hearing.
Besides the payroll protection program, businesses and business advocates are seeking other relief in other areas that include taxes and rent.
The Chamber of Commerce Hawaii on March 25 asked Gov. David Ige to delay or suspend upcoming state tax bills including general excise taxes.
“We have heard from our members across the state that they are on the brink of completely shutting down,” Sherry Menor-McNamara, the organization’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “Many fear permanent closure in days or weeks because they won’t be able to pay their April bills.”
Many businesses are also seeking relief from landlords.
The operator of Kahala Mall, MMI Realty Services, said the company is working with all its tenants individually and has no set formula on how to work with struggling tenants during the pandemic.
Alexander & Baldwin Inc., the second-largest retail property owner in the state, said it has been working with tenants one-on-one for nearly a month to understand the challenges each is facing from COVID-19 restrictions.
“Our goal is to work together to help our tenants weather this economic downturn of unknown duration,” A&B spokeswoman Lynn Kenton said. “We are focusing on those particularly stressed by financial hardship and providing relief as appropriate.”
The owner of Pearlridge Center, Washington Prime Group, did not respond to a request for comment on its approach on rent at Hawaii’s second-largest mall, where many small-business tenants are prohibited from operating.
Hollander of Crazy Shirts has had conversations with every landlord leasing space to one of his stores since closing because of COVID-19, and said every one has avoided laying down a general policy in favor of committing to figure out a way to get through the crisis together.
“We’re all in the same boat,” he said.
For more information on small business loan assistance, go to 808ne.ws/2UFNgSL.