Karen Lin, Contributing Photographer

Small business owners in New Haven are working to improve their financial circumstances by applying for state grants intended to alleviate revenue losses incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In October, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont announced the Connecticut CARES Small Business Grant Program. The program is an effort by the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, or DECD, to lessen economic obstacles that small business owners are facing as a result of downturns in business due to the pandemic. The DECD dedicated $50 million of the state’s allotted Federal CARES — Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security — budget to the grant program, which will provide struggling establishments with one-time, no-strings-attached $5,000 grants.

The online application was released the week of Nov. 9 and completed applications take several days to process. According to the CT CARES website, businesses must satisfy a handful of specific criteria in order to be eligible to apply for the recovery package. Some of these criteria include having fewer than 20 full-time employees in 2019 or a 2019 payroll under $1.5 million, maintaining standing as an operable business that plans to reopen and being able to demonstrate at least a 20 percent loss in revenue over the past year. 

For small New Haven establishments that have had limited sales over the past six months, such as Book Trader Cafe, these are not difficult requirements to meet.

“It says you must be able to demonstrate a 20 percent loss of revenue for this year,” said David Duda, owner of Book Trader Cafe. “That won’t be hard at all. It’s been much higher than that. … I don’t know exactly what it is but it could be a 100 percent loss in revenue. I’m not sure we made any money this year.” 

Earlier this year, the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, initiative by the U.S. Small Business Administration supported some small businesses. This support came in the form of forgivable loans as an incentive for businesses to keep a certain minimum number of employees on the payroll during the pandemic.

Claire Criscuolo, owner of Claire’s Corner Copia, shared that the PPP federal stimulus money was absolutely essential to her business’s success over the past six months. 

“I don’t know how we would have stayed in business [without PPP stimulus money],” Criscuolo shared. “I don’t know how we could have continued.”

However, other local businesses could not benefit from PPP loans –– such as Duda of Book Trader, who said he did not qualify for them. As Duda was the only employee throughout the duration of the cafe’s six-month closure, he did not satisfy the loan criteria — which states that 70 percent of the PPP money had to be allocated to labor costs and used within three months. 

The CT CARES Small Business Grant Program’s eligibility requirements are designed to aid businesses such as Duda’s that did not qualify for other government loans. 

Multiple such businesses told the News in interviews that they found the CT CARES application process much more streamlined than that of the PPP. According to Criscuolo, the CT CARES application was quick and easy. 

“I prepared myself like the PPP SBA loans where it was so stressful for me,” Criscuolo commented. “This was the easiest, most simple, wonderful [application process]. They did a great job with it.”

The CT CARES recovery package comes at an opportune time for many establishments that have struggled to generate revenue during the pandemic. 

Carrien Joseph owns Any Occasion Creation Florist, a flower delivery company. Joseph said she was negotiating her current commercial lease and only doing local deliveries toward the beginning of the year when the pandemic hit. Though she continued with her planned move to a new store location on Howe Street in the summer, Joseph said that the pandemic was a tough environment to build a business in. 

“It’s very difficult to generate revenue with limited traffic due to COVID-19,” Joseph said in an email to the News. “Our online sales increased slightly during the summer, however, it didn’t replace our largest revenue drivers, e.g., weddings, private events, etc.”

According to the CT CARES website, the state government permits the use of grant money in a number of ways, ranging from utilities and payroll to rent and inventory. This is intended to provide flexibility for different businesses, all facing a wide array of difficulties. 

Joseph, as the sole proprietor of her floral company, said she plans to use the funding for overhead bills and online advertising. Despite the slight uptick in flower sales over the summer months, Joseph said she hopes that the CT CARES grant would have a more substantial impact on her business. 

“This grant will go a long way in creating a financial bridge into our busy season,” Joseph commented. “Due to our new location, we anticipate growing our sales substantially in 2021. The funds will go towards rent and inventory for our largest day for sales, Valentine’s Day, in February.”

Criscuolo of Claire’s Corner Copia said that she would put the grant money toward health insurance. She expressed her discontent over the country’s healthcare system as a small business owner working to make ends meet. 

“Considering we live in the insurance capital of America, it’s unacceptable that we can’t even afford [health insurance],” Criscuolo said. “You can only make so much selling organic salads and food and paying your staff your wages. There’s usually no money left over for health care at the expensive amount that it is.”

For many small businesses, the pandemic has caused multiple logistical difficulties, from rent to paying employees. Duda said running Book Trader Cafe as a restaurant-bookstore combination involves high labor costs. 

“We have cut back a lot, but there is a certain minimum of labor needed to keep a business open and we will apply it towards that,” Duda said. “With the PPP money, we weren’t open so there were no labor costs. The profit margin of our sales these days is not covering our labor costs.”

Duda commented that he could apply funds from the CT CARES Small Businesses Grant Program to “just about anything,” as they are “behind on everything.” He shared that it would be extremely difficult to survive the stretch when students are gone from Thanksgiving to February without this external aid.

With students taking their finals remotely, Book Trader Cafe will also be missing out on their usual winter bump in sales. At the end of each semester, Duda said the bookstore buys back textbooks from students, which helps to push the shop through the slow period of the winter months. However, this year, he said he hopes that the stimulus money will mitigate these losses. 

Criscuolo said she hopes that the customers will differentiate among stores that abide by public health guidelines during the pandemic and support the ones that are following rules. 

“It would be helpful if we could distinguish between businesses that are really doing every single thing possible to make it safer,” Criscuolo shared. “You have one bad person in a group and everyone gets painted with the same brush and that’s just wrong.”

Funds for approved applicants will be distributed to the business owners by the Department of Economic and Community Development on or before Dec. 30, 2020.

Sydney Zoehrer | sydney.zoehrer@yale.edu