For local businesses in Portland, the future is bleak. Portland Buy Local recently surveyed our members and found that nearly 30 percent are considering permanently closing.

This isn’t unique to Portland, and yet national leaders don’t seem bothered by the grim reality that our communities could soon be filled with shuttered storefronts.

This is a choice that elected officials are making. It is not inevitable. By waiting to release details of the HEALS Act until July 28, the U.S. Senate effectively told small businesses that the challenges they face are not urgent. Now, the Senate has adjourned for its August recess without passing a new coronavirus relief bill.

Arguably, the biggest story of the week has become the U.S. Postal Service. For many small businesses, the USPS played a critical role in helping to keep them afloat during the shutdown.

But as a local-business advocate, I’m frustrated that this artificially created crisis is springing up when the real crisis – a global pandemic – is still ongoing.

During a global pandemic, it should go without saying that public health is inextricably tied to the economy. We cannot return to pre-pandemic economic health until we can control (or, better yet, stop) the spread of the virus. Yet lawmakers have left D.C. without a plan in place to fix any of this.

Over the past year, Portland Buy Local has been working to shift our focus into advocacy, and these crises are a great example of why organizations like ours need to do more to ensure our elected leaders listen to the needs of real small businesses.

In mid-March, the message “Buy Local” seemed to spring up organically across the country. We saw, and shared, social media challenges and calls-to-action to support small, local businesses by purchasing gift cards.

But gift cards alone will not rescue the whole local business community. We still need our government to step up.

The Paycheck Protection Program provided stopgap funds, but it didn’t sufficiently cover fixed costs like rent, it perpetuated racial inequities among entrepreneurs and its rollout was confusing at best.

Now, the PPP is expired, the virus continues to spread and uncertainty looms over every business’ balance sheet.

So what do local businesses really need right now? In our survey, local businesses said they most wanted automatic forgiveness of PPP loans under $150,000, commercial rent-mortgage relief and another round of funding support.

Automatic forgiveness of smaller PPP loans is a great place to start. Given that small, local banks were more likely to work with local businesses to get them a PPP loan, this provision would support small banks by reducing their administrative burden, and it would give small-business owners one less thing to worry about.

As we’ve said from the beginning, commercial mortgage and rent relief is a critical part of keeping small businesses open in our community. Only 11 percent of our survey respondents said they were getting mortgage or rent relief directly from their landlords. So nearly 90 percent of businesses still have to pay the full amount of these fixed costs, while bringing in just a fraction of their typical revenues.

Several pieces of legislation have been brought forward over the last few months, and it’s long past time to take action on them. Bills like the RESTAURANT Act, the Restart Act and the Save Our Stages Act could provide much-needed support to the industries most affected by the pandemic.

More locally, our state and city governments can follow the recommendations for a post-COVID economy made by the American Sustainable Business Coalition, Portland Buy Local and 60-plus organizations from around the country. Also, every policymaker should familiarize themselves with the 26 recommendations from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. A common theme from both of these reports is the need for rent support, like the program just by the state government in Arizona, which provides businesses with up to $25,000 for commercial rent.

What don’t local businesses need? Well, according to our survey, COVID-19 liability protections were ranked as the least helpful policy proposal. We hope Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t continue to use this as a bargaining chip, when most small businesses aren’t interested in the first place.

Without continued action, we could face years of shuttered storefronts, decreased entrepreneurialism, increased corporate consolidation and the loss of what makes our community a unique and vibrant place to live, work and visit. It doesn’t have to end like this.


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