Cook County plans to give out grants of up to $10,000 to small businesses hit hard by pandemic

Small business owners in suburban Cook County who saw their revenue evaporate during the coronavirus pandemic could get up to $10,000 in grants by the end of the year, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced Wednesday.

A small business assistance program will give to businesses a total of $12.6 million in federal CARES Act money that was allocated to the county’s coronavirus relief fund. The county aims to serve about 1,200 businesses through these one-time payments that are slated to go out by January.

“Small business owners are used to dealing with the unexpected, but few have ever been through a crisis like COVID-19 before,” Preckwinkle said at a news conference at Thornton Distillery Co. “Small businesses need recovery and resilience support to weather the storm and then come out stronger on the other side of it. That’s the objective of the program.”

To be eligible, the businesses must be for-profit, have 20 or fewer employees and prove sales dropped by more than 20% during any month from March to July, compared with February. If the business received federal funding in the past, the applicant must demonstrate they will use this grant for different expenses. Finally, the business cannot have an IRS tax lien or other judgment, and the owners and partners cannot be in the process of bankruptcy.

Applicants should prepare a signed business tax return, a proposed “recovery plan” for the pandemic, bank statements from February to July, a budget for how they would use the funds and confirmation on whether their business had federal funding. Those selected are required to also undergo one-on-one counseling over several months on business management.

Despite the requirements, Commissioner Donna Miller, D-Lynwood, said the program will help those left behind by federal assistance such as the Paycheck Protection Program or Economic Injury Disaster Loan. That includes owners who didn’t have the means to apply in time or struggled to get approved by a bank due to credit or other reasons.

“That was acutely impacting the viability of small businesses, especially in lower-income and diverse communities,” Miller said. “The county’s new small business grant relief fund is uniquely positioned to respond to these barriers.”

The program also will funnel $2.4 million into a separate, free advising and education service for business owners throughout Cook County, including Chicago, that seek direction on how to weather the pandemic.

Over 30 business service and philanthropic organizations in the county formed a network to support the overall program. The Chicago Community Trust, McCormick Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and JP Morgan Chase are helping with funding.

Earlier in April, Preckwinkle announced another $10 million fund for loans to small businesses and gig workers. She revealed on Wednesday that the county received about $40 million in applications, underscoring the “tremendous” need that the pandemic and resultant shutdown has inflicted. According to the county website, a little over $7 million in such loans has been approved.

The owner of the distillery where the news conference took place also opened up about his business’s challenges. Andrew Howell, co-founder of Thornton Distillery — located in what he said was a historic brewery in Illinois — said he had undergone a four-year restoration project and had prepared for distribution when the pandemic hit, triggering what he called “a scary and devastating point in history.”

Howell had to close the distillery’s doors to the public, cancel weddings and furlough his staff, he said. The business eventually began distributing to the Chicago area in July after a brief pivot to making hand sanitizer, but he is now searching for resources to build out outdoor seating as colder weather looms.

“When the pandemic broke, and the stay-at-home order was announced in March, we, like many businesses, were in a state of shock,” Howell said. “We don’t really know how it’s going to go. … So any sort of resource like (the grant) is huge for us.”

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