With limited federal funding, Prince George’s County businesses are relying on local help

While closed to dine-in customers during the coronavirus pandemic, Banana Blossom Bistro still offers delivery and carry-out. (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)

When the novel coronavirus began to threaten the survival of small businesses in late March, Riverdale Park restaurant owner Phil Esguerra sought help from the Small Business Administration. But in the month since, he still hasn’t heard back.

Without federal assistance, Esguerra’s restaurant, Banana Blossom Bistro, has had to rely on carry-out services and GoFundMe pages organized by residents in the community to stay afloat. 

Nationwide, small businesses like Banana Blossom are continuing to grapple with the financial implications of the coronavirus pandemic. To help, local governments, including Prince George’s County’s, are finding ways to support those who may be struggling. 

Prince George’s County Councilwoman Dannielle Glaros, for instance, helped organize a GoFundMe page for four restaurants in Riverdale Park, including Banana Blossom. The GoFundMe raised over $15,000 for community restaurants, which provide meals for vulnerable populations, such as people who are hungry or unable to buy food, Glaros said.

[Read more: GoFundMe pages for these two local restaurants are raising funds for employees]

“When you’re facing economic challenges like we are right now, the most important thing is to do something,” she said. “If we’re all doing something, then that all adds up to doing a lot.” 

With the funding, Banana Blossom has been able to keep some of its workers on the payroll, Esguerra said. Employees such as its dishwasher, who no longer has dishes to clean, are being assigned new duties.

“We’re very impressed with the response it’s been receiving,” Esguerra said of the fundraiser. “It’s wonderful.” 

In addition to these community efforts, two programs have been introduced at the county level: the COVID-19 Business Relief Fund — a $15 million program that aims to support local businesses’ cash operating expenses — and the COVID-19 Hourly Employee Relief Fund, which provides workers who make fewer than $19 an hour with $200 cash cards. 

[Read more: Small businesses in College Park struggle through coronavirus pandemic]

Glaros said these initiatives are designed to leverage resources to the county’s small businesses, in addition to federal and state loans that have been made available in recent weeks. 

On the state level, the COVID-19 Emergency Relief $50M Grant Fund offers grants of up to $10,000 for businesses and nonprofits with 50 or fewer employees. And on Monday, the Small Business Administration began taking requests again for $310 billion in aid to small businesses across the country. 

The first round of federal aid under the Paycheck Protection Program — which Esguerra applied for — depleted its funds of $350 billion within two weeks. Without assistance from the federal government, Esguerra said he’s been forced to rely on help from the community. 

However, Glaros said that local programs aren’t able to help everyone. County and municipal governments do not have the funding to provide widespread assistance to their small businesses — but they will continue to help as many people as possible, she added. 

In College Park, for example, the city government has held virtual town hall meetings to assess the needs of struggling businesses. 

“We don’t have as many resources as those other government entities do, so we’re kind of looking at where we can fill in any gaps that might exist,” College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn said.

The city posted a list of restaurants providing carry-out services on its website to encourage residents to patronize local businesses that are still open. Wojahn also said the city is currently working with the College Park City-University Partnership, a nonprofit development corporation jointly funded by the city and the University of Maryland, to provide students with gift cards to local restaurants when they return to the campus. 

The Riverdale Park government had to dip into its reserves to acquire the funding for its small business programs, Mayor Alan Thompson said. With an annual budget that is not large enough to assist all of the businesses in need, the city is doing what it can to help out locally, Thompson added. 

“As I said to the city manager, ‘If we need a rainy day fund, it’s pouring outside right now, and we need to start spending some of it,’” Thompson said. 

One of the city’s programs allows residents who have lost a source of income to use a $25 voucher at the local farmers market, Thompson said. The city intends to spend about $3,000 on the vouchers every week. 

Another program, which would distribute cash cards for residents who want to order from local restaurants, is also in the works, Thompson said.

“There will, at some point, be a recovery from this,” Thompson said. “And we want to be there to help out the businesses when that happens.” 

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