Harris County’s new $30 million grant program for small businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic launched July 13 and has already seen more than 1,000 area businesses apply for a portion of the relief funds, county officials said at a morning press conference.
The program was unanimously approved by county commissioners June 30 and follows an earlier $10 million loan program designed to support small businesses experiencing difficulties related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy here in Harris County, and the pandemic has hit them especially hard. We in county government can’t make up for all the loss, but we’re doing everything we can to try and help. Their survival is not just critical to the prosperity of our region, but also to the character of our community,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at the press conference.
The new grant program, funded by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, is open to any county businesses—excluding Houston businesses located outside Harris County Precinct 1—employing fewer than 30 people with a priority for those employing fewer than five, Hidalgo said. The county expects the program will support around 1,500 businesses, she said. Following the 10-day application period, eligible businesses selected to receive funding will be granted up to $25,000 each.
Whereas the county’s first $10 million round of small business funding was set up as a loan program on a first-come, first-served basis, the new $30 million initiative is a grant program in which recipients will be selected at random from the overall applicant pool following a 10-day intake period. Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said the initial loan program may also be reworked into a similar format as the new grant program to ensure consistency for all businesses receiving assistance through either funding source.
“We didn't want to have one set of businesses under one set of criteria and another group under a different set of criteria. So this will effectively become a $40 million program that we are executing as we speak,” he said.
Garcia also noted most businesses that apply will not receive funding. More than 7,000 applications requesting more than $150 million in total assistance were received for the first program that distributed the $10 million to around 400 businesses, he said.
“That was just an indication of the pain that this pandemic has caused economically,” Garcia said.
Later in the conference, Garcia said anyone in need of assistance should apply to the program and requested that those who do receive funding use it to help their neighboring businesses.
“Anyone who benefits from these programs, I ask that you pay it forward. I ask that you do work with other businesses in your community. Help us all leverage this money as much as we can throughout the county," he said.
The grant program application period is now open and closes July 24 at 3:30 p.m. Businesses interested in applying for funding may visit www.harriscounty-sbrfund.org or call 713-845-2476 for more information.
County officials also discussed the current state of the county's ongoing COVID-19 response at the July 13 press conference. Hidalgo stressed the importance of staying home and getting tested and once again called for the ability to enforce a new stay-home order for county residents.
“I’ve been saying already for a few weeks that we need to stay home, and all we’ve achieved by not having a stay-home order for the past few weeks is more hospitalizations, more deaths, more pain in our community, and we’re not any closer to putting our economy back on track. Quite the contrary, the longer we wait the longer it will take to recover," Hidalgo said. "If what we’re waiting for is more tragic data, more tragic stories, there you have them.”
She also highlighted the continued disproportionate effects the virus appears to be having on Latino and African American communities throughout the county. Hidalgo said Hispanic people make up around 45% of the county's population but have accounted for 50% of weekly hospitalizations and 65% of weekly total cases in Harris County since mid-May. And African Americans, who make up around 18% of the county's population, have accounted for one-fourth of total hospitalizations in Harris County since March, Hidalgo said.
“If this isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is. One of the saddest repercussions of this strategy to fill up all hospital beds before taking meaningful actions has been how we’re leaving an enormous piece of our community behind. We should all care about what’s happening to our most vulnerable residents right now," she said.
Dr. Umair Shah, the executive director of the county public health department, said Harris County remains in a "critical situation" with its COVID-19 response and also highlighted the worries that county health officials have regarding minority communities in the region.
“I just want to underscore this is a significant concern for us at the public health department. While all of us are in this together, while all of us and all of our messages go to the entirety of our community, we particularly want to speak to our Hispanic and our African American community," Shah said. "The concern that we have is that the increases in the Hispanic community are not just a cumulative increase, but it has actually got worse ... over time."
Hidalgo and Shah both mentioned the free access residents have to county testing sites and the availability of treatment at Harris Health System hospitals, and they urged those who may need those services to take advantage of the county's offerings.
“Do not fear, do not have the concern that you cannot get tested. Do not have the concern that you cannot go to a health care provider," Shah said. "Do not have that concern because that is absolutely the wrong way to fight this virus.”