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St. Louis Business Owners Say Stimulus Won’t Provide Enough To Fully Recover

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Corinne Ruff
St. Louis Public Radio
Cathy Jenkins sits in her Ferguson-based restaurant, Cathy's Kitchen, before a lunch rush in late December. She and her husband are preparing to apply for another federal loan to get through the pandemic.

Shekela Bester missed out on the first round of small-business loans approved by the government last spring to curb the economic devastation brought on by the pandemic.

But the owner of Florissant-based nonprofit Hoppee said her paperwork was ready to go late last month when Congress allocated another $285 billion to the federal loan program, called the Paycheck Protection Program.

“Oh, it was like a breath of fresh air. It was like ‘Oh, they didn’t forget about us!’” she recalls feeling when she heard the news. “We have so many people in need and we are trying our best to balance the resources we do have to make sure that they stretch.”

Bester said the money will help keep her organization afloat so it can provide monthly food pantries, a winter coat drive and other necessities for underserved communities.

But Bester and other small-business owners worry that the federal stimulus package, which also provides more unemployment benefits and direct payments of $600, is a temporary solution. They're concerned that without more substantial support, people won’t be able to overcome the pandemic’s impact.

“It may put some things in the refrigerator for some of my clients, but it won’t stop the evictions or the hardships or the struggles that they’ve got going on,” Bester said. “That $600 is already gone.”

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Corinne Ruff
St. Louis Public Radio
Cathy Jenkins, co-owner of Ferguson-based Cathy's Kitchen, tops a to-go order of mac and cheese with spices during a lunch rush in late December. It's been almost a year since the restaurant offered dine-in service.

Jerome Jenkins, who co-owns Cathy’s Kitchen with his wife in Ferguson, said he’s already working with his bank to apply for another PPP loan to help cover the cost of payroll. He received a nearly $33,000 loan last year.

“It doesn’t last very long,” he said. “It’s almost like giving you 30 days to maintain payroll for your employees. It gives you an opportunity to change things, to get things together.”

Jenkins said this kind of stopgap money is especially important as local governments continue to change capacity limits on indoor dining, among other things. His business has been down by about 70% since he closed the restaurant for indoor dining and stopped accepting cash last February. Since then, he moved to a carryout-only model for consistency.

Over the past few months, Jenkins has watched other small businesses close along the South Florissant Road business strip where his restaurant is located. But he’s hopeful the loans will help those still open stay afloat until more people can get vaccinated and restrictions loosen up.

“If you can get the other PPP and it can hold you over until things come back to normal by keeping your staff, that will be huge,” he said.

‘A slap in the face’

Employees in the service industry, like Katie Brown, have also been waiting on relief for months.

She depleted her savings during the pandemic and has been living paycheck to paycheck.

The pizzeria where she worked as a server closed early on in the pandemic. She received unemployment benefits for a while, until she could pick up shifts at other bars and restaurants along Cherokee Street. Given the restrictions on restaurants, Brown is bringing in less money.

She said the $600 check from the federal government will help pay her rent for a month. But she’s frustrated the government isn’t doing more.

“It’s just kind of a slap in the face to get $600. It’s just, like almost nothing,” she said.

Over the past few months, she’s paid for groceries and gas with money from a community auction set up to support bartenders and artists in the Cherokee Street neighborhood.

Lucas Hanner set up the auction last March, at first giving out money weekly, then monthly, to a rotating list of 30 people. By the end of 2020, he raised more than $53,000 for industry workers.

“None of us should have had to worry about this. That money should have been there,” he said, noting that the government should be doing more to support people who aren’t able to bring in a full paycheck due to the pandemic.

But Hanner said given how small the direct payments are, he feels obligated to keep up the auctions, even though he works full time and has two kids at home. He’s hoping Congress passes legislation pushing to increase direct payments to $2,000.

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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