On the Margins will be off next week, returning November 12. Don’t forget to vote! And now, the newsletter.
On paper, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) seemed like a pretty solid idea. Early in the pandemic, when it was clear that small businesses would have to close to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, the CARES Act came up with a way to give those businesses money so we wouldn’t wind up with mass unemployment. The loans would be relatively easy to obtain, were intended for small businesses to keep employees on payroll, and you could apply to have the loan forgiven, virtually making it free money.
Unfortunately, in practice, the PPP hasn’t panned out nearly as well as people hoped. First, there wasn’t enough money. Then, businesses that weren’t the intended recipients of the loans got them, while many small businesses—especially those owned by people of color—couldn’t get them. After the program obtained another round of funding, small businesses were reluctant to take it after hearing the frustration from those who got in on the first round.
Plus, we still ended up with mass unemployment, there have been quite a few spectacular frauds, and, wouldn’t you know it, the loan forgiveness part isn’t going so well either.
Davis Senseman, an attorney who works with small business owners in Minneapolis, had assumed they would already be wrapping up work with clients to get their loans forgiven by now. Instead, they have clients who call and anxiously say that they’re watching interest accruing on their PPP loans. “It’s so hard to say to them… ‘We can’t do the forgiveness yet,’” Senseman said. Others have decided not to use the PPP money in case it’s not forgiven. Some clients have even held off on calling employees back to work.
Senseman is also waiting to apply to have their own $16,500 PPP loan forgiven. They applied after realizing that all of their small business clients weren’t going to be able to pay them for work done in January and February as businesses shuttered in March. They precisely followed the program’s rules. Still, they said, they aren’t “100 percent sure” that the rules won’t change again. “It takes an emotional toll,” Senseman said. “I would like this debt that should not be a debt to not be a debt.” And if it does turn into debt, even partially, it would be a “burden,” forcing Senseman to start demanding payment from clients who still can’t pay.
Even thoughtfully constructed legislation has its share of surprises, but the PPP has been a doozy. And I suppose some of those surprises are expected. More than a dozen interim final rules? Sure. Businesses with resources taking advantage via a generous reading of the rules? Yep. Fraud? Virtually a guarantee.
But the forgiveness—the chance to turn a garden variety loan into a grant, i.e., free money—is what everyone was hoping would make it all worth it. Small businesses desperately needed a lifeline with minimal strings attached. What many of them got was an administrative nightmare, and now it’s starting to look like it could be a financial nightmare, too.
Last week we talked about winter wreaking havoc on businesses and how it will take some creative ideas for many of them to survive it. So here’s one:
If we really want to stem the spread of the coronavirus as winter looms and we wait for a vaccine, here’s an idea: The government should pay bars, many restaurants and event venues to close for some months.
That may sound radical, but it makes scientific sense and even has a political precedent. We pay farmers not to cultivate some fields (in theory, at least, to protect the environment), so why not pay bars that cannot operate safely to shut down (to protect public health)?
The idea being: Most other businesses can stay open, reasonably limit the number of customers or employees on site, require masks and social distancing, and probably be fine. Restaurants, bars, event spaces, and the like, however, cannot do any of those things and hope to survive because their businesses require jamming people into close proximity to one another with mouths and noses exposed in order to eat, carouse, dance, whatever. What many have done in the summer and (yet another) mild fall is expand outdoors, invest in heaters when necessary, and other measures. That will carry businesses through winter fine in Los Angeles or South Florida—but certainly not in Duluth, where the average high temperature in January is 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Paying bars and restaurants to close through the winter is just the sort of counterintuitive, unexpected idea that most people would sneer at—which is precisely why states with bitter winters should try it. Just have everyone put a “Gone Ice Fishing” sign in their window and call it a season. With any luck, everyone will be back for the spring re-opening.
Unsolicited life advice: Eat the whole apple
We’re coming to the end of apple season, and if you’re like me, you ate your weight in Honeycrisp weeks ago. Chances are you aren’t like me, however, in the sense that I ate the stems, core, and seeds of all those apples and you did not. And that is a shame. You should eat the whole apple. Yes, the core. Yes, the seeds. Yes, the stem. Okay, the stem is optional.
I confess: I wasn’t always a “eat the whole apple, core and all” person. About 10 years ago, I was introduced to the idea by my brother’s friend, who described the cool sensation when eating the core and seeds. She recommended eating the apple like normal and once I got to the point where I was typically finished, to take a big bite from the bottom through the core, and then another bite or two to finish the rest.
Eating the whole apple is a cool, refreshing, enriching experience. Once you try it, it’s unlikely that you will stop. People may look at you funny, but you will recognize a bit of admiration, and maybe a sliver of envy in their eye. No waste. Just pure enjoyment. You’re welcome.
Fresh from Gusto
- I wrote an explainer on minimum essential coverage.
- My colleague Leah Brite did a case study on Lance CPA Group.
- Fraud & Fraudsters: Meet the People Who Are Stealing Your Stuff with Greg Kyte and me on November 18.
- Selling Advisory: Supporting Client Needs in a COVID Landscape with Will Lopez and Josh Lance on November 18.
Read with Gusto
- SEC awards record $114 million to whistleblower.
- Amazon workers threaten to shut down warehouses if employees don’t get a day off to vote.
- Etsy is selling lots of masks.
- Halloween candy sales are up.
- 23 million people could move, thanks to remote work.
- Octopuses taste with their arms.