Grants for Santa Clara County microbusinesses will leave some hanging
Roberto Gonzalez, a vendor and president of the Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association, tends to his stand in this file photo.

    COVID relief for very small businesses in Santa Clara County is on the horizon, but a bevy of rules may prevent it from reaching some struggling entrepreneurs.

    The county is waiting to receive $2.4 million from a California program that aids microbusinesses across the state. Once in hand, the county anticipates distributing $2,500 grants to roughly 875 small businesses. Businesses who qualify for the program must have less than five employees and make under $50,000 a year.

    “We anticipate having approvals and processes in place in the coming weeks before we announce the details,” county spokesperson Matthew Ruding told San José Spotlight.

    The nonprofit Enterprise Foundation is distributing the grants with the help of a dozen community partner organizations. Executive Director Dennis King said these are the first funds to target the smallest and most vulnerable businesses in the county, such as independent contractors who work in hair salons or nail salons, street vendors and home chefs.

    “This group was the hardest hit by the pandemic,” King told San José Spotlight. “It’s great to be able to provide something that’s meaningful and impactful to them right away.”

    King and the county are still working out the application process, and want to streamline the process to make it easier for businesses. A few hard rules are already in place: grants are restricted to businesses operating in 2019 and 2020, making less than $50,000 in revenue in 2019 and with less than five employees.

    For many small businesses in Santa Clara County, $2,500 would be a godsend. Roberto Gonzalez, head of the Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association, told San José Spotlight some vendors struggle during the winter months when business is slow. Money that doesn’t go to rent could go toward taking small steps to grow their businesses.

    “The number one item that always comes up is capital,” Gonzalez said. “Money to help them expand their businesses—the top issue is always capital.”

    The grants are geared toward businesses impacted by the pandemic. But state criteria excludes companies formed in 2020 and 2021, which includes a large number of residents who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and started their own businesses to survive.

    Mariel De La Cruz, a food photographer and stylist, lost her job as a pastry chef at the start of the pandemic. Last August, she set up a freelance business taking pictures of food for companies and media outlets. A small grant could pay for lighting equipment, personal protective equipment and rapid tests for people working with her in photoshoots—but she likely won’t qualify since she started her business after 2019. She said the lack of assistance is frustrating.

    “It’s not easy at all,” De La Cruz said. “I feel like there was just a lot of assistance put out to everybody, and now it’s done, it stopped very abruptly, and that’s been a difficult transition for a lot of people.”

    Many businesses across the county went under during the first year of the pandemic. In recent months, the region has enjoyed some recovery with declining unemployment. In December, the Board of Supervisors approved a $20 million federal relief grant to help small businesses.

    Noelle Boesenberg, who started her business TherapyBaking shortly after the pandemic, likely won’t qualify for a grant. Photo by Ali Williams.

    Some microbusiness owners aren’t sure a grant would make much of a dent in their expenses, even if they qualified for one. Noelle Boesenberg, a San Jose resident who started a baking company after she was laid off from her job at the start of the pandemic, said she pays for baking materials, equipment, delivery supplies and maintaining a website. All of this is on top of rent and utilities.

    The omicron variant of COVID-19 also poses a constant threat to business. Boesenberg told San José Spotlight she got sick in January and had to cancel all of her orders while waiting for a negative test result. She suggested if the county wants to help microbusinesses it could start by waiving permitting fees and restoring protections like the eviction moratorium, or by extending the grants to more people.

    “It’s really messed up for people like me who lost their jobs and have to find a new way to make money,” Boesenberg said. “Policymakers don’t seem to be thinking about businesses like mine.”

    Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter. 

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