Ristorante Saraceno in Boston’s North End can serve just 10 diners at a time under current coronavirus restrictions that have pushed cash-strapped small businesses to the brink, but a state-run grant program hopes to save as many as it can from extinction.
“Another couple of months is all I can stand for it, but this is going to be a big help,” owner Frank Pezzano told reporters after hosting a press conference with Gov. Charlie Baker and other state officials on Thursday.
Pezzano’s restaurant is one of 1,595 businesses to receive grants of up to $75,000 each during the latest round of awards through the COVID-19 Small Business Grant Program. To date, the program has awarded close to $195 million in direct financial support to 4,119 small businesses and with another $473 million in funds still to dole out, officials are begging business owners to apply.
The program launched in October and administered by the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corp. has grown to become “the largest small business grant program using COVID relief funds currently in the United States of America,” according to Baker.
Described by the governor as a “bridge” for businesses struggling amid the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, it draws on CARES Act stimulus funds and can pay out up to $668 million in grants.
Applications for the current round of funding are open to small businesses through 11:59 p.m. on Friday. Business owners can apply at empoweringsmallbusiness.org.
Massachusetts Restaurant Association President Bob Luz encouraged all restaurant owners to apply saying, “don’t leave money on the table.” Businesses can be eligible and collect both federal Payroll Protection Program and state small business grants, he said.
Small business owners have been held hostage to coronavirus’s spread. A bright spot in the summer during a period of low transmission across the state allowed restaurateurs to expand their dining rooms onto city streets and sidewalks — a well-received change Baker said he hopes becomes “permanent.” But cold weather and a long-predicted second surge in cases has left restaurants and other businesses nearly empty.
A 25% temporary capacity cap on restaurants and other small businesses put in place around the holidays will remain in effect until at least Jan. 24.
For Pezzano, the program came just in the nick of time.
“I’m exhausted. My savings? There’s nothing left,” Pezzano told the Herald following Thursday’s press conference.
Pezzano’s financial struggles aren’t unique. Nearly one-quarter of the 16,000 Massachusetts restaurants in business before the pandemic hit last March have never reopened, according to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.