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'It stabilized us': How the State of Nebraska gave away $1 billion in COVID relief, and who got it

'It stabilized us': How the State of Nebraska gave away $1 billion in COVID relief, and who got it

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Gov. Pete Ricketts discusses how he thinks Nebraska will fare with the lessening of the pandemic.

The money took a few months before it was finally feeding Lisa Lutz’s goats on her land near Callaway.

And keeping Nader Farahbod’s to-go container supply stocked at Billy’s, his longtime Lincoln restaurant.

And making up for lost room rentals at the Hilltop Lodge in Niobrara, buying parts for the ’70 Cougar at Todd Otto’s restoration shop on Cornhusker Highway, and paying for more Florence Nightingale lanterns for the Nebraska Nurse Honor Guard.

And ultimately helping more than 30,000 other Nebraska businesses, producers, nonprofits and governments — from the North 24th Street Church of God to The Night Before strip club — try to survive the economic pillaging of the pandemic.

The state received its share of federal CARES Act money in April 2020, and it had a simple goal for the Coronavirus Relief Fund.

“We wanted to make sure we could get as much money to as many entities as we could,” said Lucas Martin, a state budget management analyst.

But they knew distributing more than $1 billion wasn’t easy, and the money wouldn’t make its way to Nebraskans overnight.

The effort was unprecedented — as logistically ambitious as launching mass virus testing centers, or orchestrating widespread vaccination clinics — and required multiple state departments to work together. The Department of Economic Development. The Department of Health and Human Services. Administrative Services. Agriculture. Revenue. Emergency Management.

By late May, the state announced four broad priorities for the Coronavirus Relief Fund: stabilize small businesses and livestock producers; reimburse state and local governments for virus-related costs; help community institutions meet needs such as food, shelter and mental health care; and bolster the state’s unemployment trust fund.

From there, it created nearly two dozen more focused programs. A fund for movie theaters. A fund for livestock producers. Funds for food banks, zoos, ethanol plants, child care providers, hotels and homeless shelters, bars and restaurants.

And in August, six months into a pandemic that had forced many businesses to close or cut back, hundreds of millions of dollars started flowing into all corners of the state.

The state had fielded more than 35,000 applications and — over two rounds of funding — awarded $775 million to 30,000 recipients, in amounts large and small.

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The City of Omaha received $30 million; Milligan $957. Henry Doorly Zoo received $5 million; Lincoln Children’s Zoo $1 million.

Nearly two dozen ethanol producers shared $14 million; 55 movie theaters split $2.44 million; and 1,462 bars and restaurants were awarded nearly $23 million combined.

The state offered $12,000 first-come, first-served grants to livestock producers with at least 20 head. More than 10,000 applied; 9,209 benefited before the funds ran out.

Small businesses were also offered an even $12,000 apiece, and more than 12,200 received the money. Nearly 2,000 personal-service providers — barbers, body artists, massage therapists, cosmetologists and nail techs — got $12,000 apiece, too.

The money didn’t come with many strings. In most cases, business owners could use it to cover operating expenses or to make up for revenue they lost between March 1 and Dec. 30.

“The way we established the program, it was billed as a stimulus to the entity,” Martin said. “For the most part, as long as they used those funds toward that business, it was an eligible use.”

The Coronavirus Relief Fund’s overall benefit to the state’s economy isn’t entirely clear. Creighton University economist Ernie Goss isn’t aware of any full-scale study or analysis examining its impact.

But all of that money — combined with the Payroll Protection Program and individual stimulus funds — clearly had to help, at least in the short term.

“That did have, and will continue to have, some very dramatic impacts,” Goss said. “It did delay some of the bankruptcies we would have seen.”

How they spent it

The Nebraska Nurse Honor Guard started small — with just five volunteers — but it had ambitious plans. Founder Deb Zobel of Ashland envisioned teams based around the state, ready to report for duty.

“Our mission is to honor the everyday heroes in the nursing profession by offering them honor guard services and tributes at the time of their death,” she said.

At graveside, they present white roses and offer gratitude to the nurses for their service. They ring a triangle to release them of their nursing duties. They present a Florence Nightingale lantern — the nursing lamp of knowledge — to their families.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. But the nonprofit was just getting started when the pandemic hit, forcing it to shut down for months before transitioning to virtual services.

But the timing wasn’t all bad. Zobel had read about the Coronavirus Relief Fund and spent several hours applying online in early July. The group learned it qualified for a stabilization grant by the end of the month.

It used the $12,000 to improve its website, buy projectors, make training videos for volunteers and increase its Zoom capabilities.

“It did just what it said it would do: It stabilized us,” Zobel said. “We would have been unable to continue to roll out the program without that grant. It was truly a blessing to our organization.”

The money also allowed the group to build its inventory of lamps it gives to families, and to order more custom capes its members wear. Despite the pandemic, the group is still growing — from the first five volunteers to about 40 now.

Nader Farahbod used part of his $12,000 restaurant stabilization grant to stock up on supplies, too.

“I’ve never used so many Styrofoam and aluminum containers to put food in,” the owner of Billy’s Restaurant said.

Before the pandemic, Billy’s had tables in every corner, and it filled them. More than 100 people might come for a meal, he said. Lunch alone would draw dozens.

But now the bulk of his business is carryout.

“We went from selling $60 bottles of wine to handing out cans of Cokes,” he said.

On St. Patrick’s Day, he prepared nearly 60 pounds of corned beef. The majority of it — maybe 50 orders — was for takeout. About 20 customers ate it in his dining room.

It’s getting better. Last year, with his dining room shut down for months, there were days he might sell five cheeseburgers at lunch. The legislative session ended early, sending state senators — among his most loyal customers — home.

“It was like the end of times,” Farahbod said. “We started exhausting our savings. In the old country, if you make $10 in a day, you save at least $2. You want to put some money away. We were fortunate to have that on hand.”

The chef was helped by two sons, who run the front of the restaurant. And he was also helped by the Payroll Protection Program and the Coronavirus Relief Fund.

But it was strange, he said, asking for that kind of help.

“I’m 63, and I never got any money from the government," he said. "But at this age, I just realized it’s not the worst thing. To have that sense of security after you paid taxes over the course of the years.”

Plus, even as the pandemic was taking business away, it was giving him new expenses. To-go containers. Sanitizer for the kitchen, dining areas and bathrooms. Masks and air filtration. And the added staff time to keep everything clean.

“The door handles, I never really thought you’d have to go and wash the door handles every time someone leaves,” Farahbod said.

But Billy’s is still open, and Farahbod hopes it stays open for another 35 years — even if the past 12 months have been a challenge.

“We’re doing the best we can,” he said. “But the best we can do now is half of what we used to do.”

The relief funds found all corners of the state. Near Callaway, Lisa Lutz kept working through the pandemic at the sale barns in Lexington and Kearney, but she used her $12,000 grant to buy hay for her 100 cattle and 100 goats.

The price of feed jumped during the pandemic, the third-generation rancher said.

“It’s up there pretty good,” she said.

In Niobrara, Bob Javonec closed his Hilltop Lodge at the end of March and didn’t reopen until June. But he still had bills to pay.

He applied for a stabilization grant after hearing about them from his banker, and was awarded $75,000 — the same amount hundreds of motels received. But some got more; the Marriott Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, for instance, received $500,000.

That was due largely to size, said Martin, the budget analyst. Most recipients — ranchers, businesses, bars and restaurants — got the same $12,000, but the state made the hotel and convention center program scalable.

“It was a, ‘Hey, let’s see how many people apply. Let’s ask for information on square footage and impacts they had from COVID, then we can derive this as the amount,’” Martin said.

The money helped Javonec make up for the missing months, he said. And when the Hilltop reopened in June, business was good. Construction season had started, and workers needed a place to stay, and Nebraskans were trying to cure their coronavirus cabin fever.

“People just wanted to get back out,” he said.

If Andy Amen isn’t cutting hair, giving a shave or renting out the other chairs at Bethany Barber Shop in northeast Lincoln, he’s not making money.

And after the first directed health measures took effect late last March, he didn’t make a dime.

“We were shut down for six weeks,” he said. “There was a lot of lost income for those six weeks.”

When he reopened in May, he and his clippers were in high demand with his regulars.

“If they didn’t get a haircut at home or from someone they knew, they were pretty shaggy and desperate,” he said.

It had already been a tough year. A December 2019 fire at the strip mall near 66th and Holdrege Streets had forced him to move to a temporary shop. So he was eager to apply when he heard about the grant from the state Board of Barber Examiners, and happy when he was approved. He had supplies to buy with that $12,000, and lost earnings to make up.

“It was plenty. It was generous,” he said. “I was pretty excited.”

On Cornhusker Highway, Todd Otto didn’t know what would happen to his 10-year-old Muscle Car Concepts and Restoration shop.

“When it (the pandemic) first started, we thought maybe everyone was going to pull the plug on what we were doing," he said. "This is not something people feel they need to have.”

He even closed at first, keeping his employees home. But he called them back in after a couple of days, because they were able to work while keeping their distance from each other.

His business did slow down at first, as potential customers — and the rest of the world — tried to determine what would happen next. And then the opposite happened.

“About six months ago, people started coming in and said, ‘I’ve been waiting to do this for a number of years; might as well do it now,’” Otto said.

He looked around his shop recently, inventorying its projects. A 1956 MG, ’68 Chevelle, ’56 Nomad, ’77 Pinto Wagon Cruiser, ’71 Mustang, ’55 International and a ’65 GTO. He’s had to add staff to keep up.

But the first six months had taken its toll, and when his accountant told him about the small-business stabilization grant, he applied. The $12,000 would help make up for the hard time, and also pay for the parts he needed.

His suppliers were struggling — with shipping and warehouses slowed by the pandemic — and prices were climbing. Earlier, he’d needed interior trim parts to finish a 1970 Cougar, for example, but his West Coast vendor was hit with both COVID consequences and the California wildfires.

Otto went through the money quickly, but he saved the paper trail, in case he’s audited.

“We’ve been keeping track of where everything’s been going, keeping all the receipts,” he said.

‘Not aware of any fraudulent applications’

Not every applicant got a grant.

After moving about $250 million to the unemployment insurance trust fund, the state still had about $775 million to give away.

It fielded 35,000 requests and approved nearly 86% of them. But that meant about 5,000 applications were rejected, for several reasons.

About 3,300 were deemed ineligible because a business license wasn’t active, an employee withholding license couldn’t be substantiated, the applicant already received funding, documentation was incomplete, the applicant didn’t demonstrate damage from COVID-19 or planned to use the money for a prohibited purpose, such as lobbying, legal settlements or bonuses.

Most of the rest simply landed on the wrong side of first-come, first-served, and the program’s allotted funding had already been spent.

The state had hired Deloitte to build and manage a single online application portal for the funding programs, which required the consulting firm to work closely with all the state agencies involved, Martin said.

For example, Deloitte would verify with the Department of Revenue that an applicant had a tax-identification number — that it was a valid business in Nebraska — and then work with Administrative Services to disburse the money.

“It was pretty seamless, for the most part,” Martin said.

But not entirely. The first funds were deposited directly, and some recipients provided incorrect account information, Martin said. The state fixed that by cutting traditional checks during the second round.

The state also set up a system to vet applications.

“The state performed several inter-agency validations and took additional steps to review applicants’ eligibility and help prevent fraud,” the governor’s office said in an email. “We are not aware of any fraudulent applications being submitted.”

The state also instructed recipients to save their receipts and other documentation, because it planned to conduct post-award audits. But none of the businesses contacted by the Journal Star have had to provide any paperwork since getting their grants.

And, more than a year later, not all of them are operating at pre-pandemic levels.

Billy’s Restaurant is doing about 70% to 80% of its normal business. Amen, the barber, is busy, but the others in his shop could use more appointments, he said.

That will take time, said Goss, the Creighton economist.

Government infusions of cash — the Coronavirus Relief Fund, the Payroll Protection Program — can prop up a struggling business, but not permanently.

Only customers can. And they have to feel comfortable again.

“Even with support from federal and state and local governments, if the consumer doesn’t change his or her buying habits, you’re still going to see rough going,” Goss said. “In the end, you’ve got to have business.”

Still, Martin can see the fund’s effectiveness when he drives past a business and knows it’s on the long list of recipients.

“There’s a lot of places in Nebraska that may still be open because of these programs,” he said.


 

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