Sun, 20 Sep 2020

WASHINGTON - Melissa Ellis has tried to do everything the right way as she guides her business through the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic.

Before the state of Vermont ordered a shutdown on out-of-state rentals, Ellis closed Rentals Only, the vacation home business she has owned since 2010 in the ski resort town of Mount Snow.

She is now one of the millions of small-business owners across the United States caught up in the rocky rollout of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package. Lawmakers quickly pushed through billions of dollars in aid for small businesses last month to prevent greater numbers of record job losses and calm a volatile stock market.

The need is even more immediate in rural Vermont, where the threat of the coronavirus intensified during the last month of the busy ski season, which is responsible for a significant portion of the annual $2.8 billion the state makes from the tourism industry.

The apps and delivery services that are keeping small businesses afloat in urban areas simply don't work in rural areas and in places like Mount Snow that depend on seasonal tourism dollars.

"Quite frankly, I'm worried more about the tourism industry than almost any other," Vermont Congressman Peter Welch told VOA. "There's a real connection between the local folks in the economy and the bigger ski areas. And what is really tough is folks will be entitled to get on unemployment, but many of these Vermonters who have built these works of love, they have a lot of expenses that are going to keep mounting, and they don't necessarily get direct relief in this rescue package."

Welch said the state and the federal government are working to find options for these business owners.

But navigating the aid in the recent rescue package has been a challenge, partly, Ellis said, because it's almost impossible to convey in the aid application forms how quickly the situation on the ground changed. The safety of employees and guests was foremost in her mind when she made the decision to stop rentals on March 17.

"This is pretty darn real, and this is something that we have to take very seriously," Ellis told VOA about the decision to close.

But the virus didn't end the demand for vacation homes. New York City, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, is just a four-hour drive away. Ellis said she fielded numerous calls from New Yorkers seeking to flee the city.

"It's sad that there's people out there that desperately could have needed us, but for my staff, myself and our local townspeople, we just are not set up for this," she said.

The end-of-the-season income losses, and the open-ended uncertainty of stay-at-home orders, make it almost impossible for Ellis to put a dollar amount on business losses on the aid application.

While thousands of applications from small-business owners have been processed since the program opened on April 3, widespread problems remain.

Like many, Ellis found that her business bank was not listed as one of the approved lenders for the federal aid. Even as she filled out the application on the first day of availability, she received an email stating that there was not enough funding and that she would have to restart that process.

In a statement Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the popularity of the Paycheck Protection Program would have to be addressed by a fast-track process in the Senate later this week.

"Jobs are literally being saved as we speak," McConnell said. "But it is quickly becoming clear that Congress will need to provide more funding, or this crucial program may run dry."

Navigating the rapidly changing range of available loan and grant options has also been a problem for Erin Yudio Burio, who started her spa and skin care business last November. The nature of her business is built on in-person interactions since many of her clients are out-of-state tourists.

Under the federal relief package, Welch said small-business owners such as Burio would be eligible for a $10,000 grant, in addition to previously unavailable access to unemployment benefits.

"While it's a really scary time, I do feel really held in our community," Burio said.

She is working with the Vermont Small Business Development Center to figure out if state and local options are available for her beyond the $2 trillion aid package.

That sense of community is something that Vermont has going for it, Welch said, even though there is no clear end in sight for these business owners.

"That's the heart of Vermont - people locally taking care of their neighbors and the backstop," the congressman said.

Welch said that while the federal government should provide aid, and the state should establish public health practices, "It's the neighbor by neighbor, community by community. Reach out and remember the importance of that emotional connection that I think will sustain us and get us through."

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