Businesses in Malheur County are posting notices to their customers as the pandemic forces some to close their doors and others to sharply curtail services. (The Enterprise/file photo)

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VALE – Adam Tolman has never seen anything like the current business environment.

Three weeks into an order by Gov. Kate Brown for people to stay home and as COVID-19 virus cases continue to rise across the nation, small businesses around the county are beginning to feel the pinch as the economy grinds to a halt.

Tolman, the heir to a family that has owned Malheur Drug in Vale for more than 30 years, said Monday he’s worried.

“It’s not really looking good,” he said.

Across town, Derek Chamberlain, owner of CAPS Auto, Truck & Ag and CAPS of Ontario said the COVID-19 virus outbreak hasn’t impacted his business hard – yet.

“But we are definitely seeing a slowdown,” said Chamberlain.

Sarah Rodriguez, owner of Luzetta’s Flowers, in Vale, said her business is down as well.

“It is hitting here like everyone else,” said Rodriguez.

In Ontario, Margurite Lyons, co-owner of Bake-A-Deli said business is down about 70%.

All four business owners have economic strife in common, but they are also united in something else. Each is looking into the new federal Paycheck Protection Program.

The program is a loan aimed at keeping small business afloat and their employees on the payroll. Administered through the U.S. Small Business Administration, the loan is forgivable if a business owner keeps employees on the payroll for eight weeks. The money must be used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest or utilities.

Business owners can apply through a U.S. Small Business Administration lender, federally insured credit union and the Farm Credit System will also participate. Business owners should check with their local banks to see if they offer the program.

Due to unprecedented demand, some banks with operations in Malheur County were taking applications but halted temporarily.

Maria Palmer, manager of the Ontario Umpqua Bank branch, said the bank “took a brief pause” in taking applications.

“We know other banks have actually closed off their ability to take applications but we have not,” said Palmer.

There has been a lot of interest in the program, said Palmer.

“We’ve had an incredible response to the point where we were bringing on additional technical support,” said Palmer.

Palmer said Umpqua Bank is accepting applications through its online portal on its web page.

“It’s been great. I am so grateful we have the opportunity to serve our community this way,” said Palmer.

Wells Fargo announced Sunday that it wouldn’t to accept additional requests for a loan. The bank projected to distribute $10 billion to small business customers and they expect to meet that target with the forms they’ve already received.

Other banks such as Bank of America are limiting their resources to current clients.

At U.S. Bank, only single-owner businesses can apply at the moment. U.S. Bank announced on its website that it expects to expand to all types of eligible businesses, independent contractors, multi-owner businesses and nonprofits in the coming days.

Lenders can begin to process loan applications now and the Paycheck Protection Program will be available through June 30.

Lyons said she didn’t hesitate when it came time to apply for the program.

She said she filled out her application Saturday.

It took about five to 10 minutes. She sent the link to fellow business owners and urged them to apply too. 

“We’re hoping to be able to pay ourselves and cover our overhead expenses to stay in business,” said Lyons, who co-owns the bakery with her daughter, Micki Simpson.

Anywhere from 25% to 40% of their business comes from cakes and special orders. Event cancelations have made a huge dent in their sales.

They’ve cut their hours and are now operating from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. They’ve also switched up their offerings. The bakery now sells take-and-bake meals that Lyons said have been a hit. Cookie decorating kits for Easter were also popular. 

The loan would be a huge help, said Lyons.

“As long as it will keep our overhead covered, we can keep focusing on staying afloat,” she said.

Chamberlain said he is also interested in the program.

“We are working with the bank to kind of see what the options are,” he said.

Chamberlain, who employs 12 people between his two stores, said he hasn’t yet laid anyone off but has adjusted work shifts and trimmed hours at his Ontario store. The Ontario store is now open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., closing an hour earlier than normal.

“We went to two, three-man shifts so that way everybody is still getting paid and we are keeping the doors open. But it is not what I want to do long term,” said Chamberlain.

Rodriguez said she will also investigate the program.

Although the application is designed to be simple, at least some business owners have reported trouble with the process. 

Roy Vargas, business advisor for the Small Business Development Center at Treasure Valley Community College, said he’s heard of people getting conflicting information by local banks. 

Tolman said because his wife, Jennifer, is the co-owner of Malheur Drug, he can’t apply for the program until later this month.

“It is a big mess from what I understand. I believe around the 10th, joint ownership people can apply,” said Tolman.

Tolman said he is looking at all solutions to keep his doors open and his employees working. Tolman said Malheur Drug – at 198 A St. W. in Vale - employs nine people.

His business, he said, is unique because it relies heavily on its pharmacy.

“So, the problem with prescriptions is we won’t be reimbursed for 60 to 90 days. I have to pay for those prescriptions every Monday, so I have these massively large bills with no money coming in,” said Tolman.

Tolman said one day last week his business attracted 20 customers.

“Usually we do an average of 150 transactions a day,” said Tolman.

Tolman said he is worried.

“It’s not just my business I am concerned about but all business in Vale. You can’t have all these eateries closed up; flower shop closed up. You are going to kill half the country,” said Tolman.

The loan program also leaves out local business owners who are not eligible for a Social Security number.

Vargas said it’s hard to quantify the number of undocumented entrepreneurs in the county, but he estimated that as many as a third of local business owners may be in a state of legal limbo that bars them from applying. 

“They’re a part of the community, they're contributing, they pay taxes obviously, and have workman’s comp insurance, payroll taxes, yet they might not qualify for these programs,” he said. 

The application doesn’t businesses to use an Individual Tax Identification Number, or ITIN. The ITIN allows people to report earnings to the Internal Revenue Service, open interest-bearing bank accounts and start businesses despite their legal status.

John Breidenbach, Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive officer, said Monday local banks are handling the Paycheck Protection Program well.

“I’ve heard some stuff about trying to do it online with the bigger, national banks have had some problems,” he said.

Breidenbach said the program is “very essential.”

“It’s the difference between keeping people at work and staying open and closing,” said Breidenbach.

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