As the window for using CARES Act money begins to close, the Town of Leesburg is hoping to help some area businesses as they prepare for the long winter months.
The Town Council this week unanimously supported a grant program to be used to reimburse business owners for the purchase or rentals of outdoor heater lamps or tents. Many businesses throughout the town have taken advantage of temporary modifications to outdoor dining regulations in recent months to provide a more comfortable, socially-distanced environment outside for diners in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But as winter looms, outdoor dining, and financial livelihoods for eating and beverage establishments in town, could be in jeopardy without a warmer solution. The grant program approved this week will allow town-based food and beverage establishments that offer outdoor dining to apply for up to $2,500 in reimbursable grants for the purchase or rental of heat lamps; and up to $5,000 for the purchase or rental of tents. To be eligible, any invoices submitted to the town must reflect payments for said items between the date the public health emergency began in March through the end of November. While all CARES funds must be expended by Dec. 30, town staff also must submit their own accounting information to Loudoun County, which is distributing the CARES money for local towns, hence the earlier deadline for businesses.
Deputy Town Manager Keith Markel said staff is estimating that up to $200,000 could be doled out to businesses for heater and tent grants, but said the number is purely a “ballpark estimate.”
“We honestly don’t know what the participation level will be,” he said.
In corresponding action, the council also made some changes to its temporary outdoor dining modifications to allow tents to have sides, and to regulate heaters.
The town still has millions of dollars in unspent CARES Act money that staff will be exploring how best to use in the coming weeks, so Markel suggested that council not cap the total dollar amount of heater and tent grants that can be given out.
To date, Leesburg has given out grants to 278 small businesses, with staff still reviewing some applications, through two rounds of applications. The town has also awarded $830,760 in grants to 28 area nonprofits that provide services related to the medical and financial impacts of the pandemic, also through two rounds of funding.
Despite its stated desire to spend the bulk of its CARES funds supporting small businesses and nonprofits, there has often been more money than the town has been able to give away. With the year drawing to a close, Markel said there is not sufficient time to do a third round of funding for businesses or nonprofits, so staff and council members are looking into different options.
This week, Councilwoman Suzanne Fox suggested that staff look into funding a program that would distribute a $50 gift card that can be used at any town-based restaurant to every household in Leesburg. Markel said there are more than 16,000 discrete residential addresses in town. He expects to have a report prepared for the council ahead of its next set of meetings, Nov. 9-10, and also may bring forward some alternatives that would have the same goal of supporting residents and businesses. During those meetings staff will also offer suggestions on how to use the remaining millions in unspent CARES funds. Leesburg received a total of $9.8 million of Loudoun County’s share of $72.2 million in CARES funds given by the state of Virginia.
Staff has already voiced support for using any remaining CARES funds so the town may reimburse itself for salaries for the Leesburg Police Department, which they say is an allowable expense for localities under CARES Act guidelines.
“It helps the community because there’s less financial debt we have, and thus less of a need to cut programs and services or increase taxes. It’s a safe play for us to be able to use the money on allowable expenses,” Markel said.
Just about everyone within the walls of Town Hall wishes there was more time in play to be able to use CARES funds, but the Dec. 30 deadline is leaving efforts a bit hamstrung.
“We all wish that we had an extended deadline so we could use this money to help the community in 2021,” Markel said, noting Congress’ recent decision to not extend the deadline. “The need is still going to be there in January, but the CARES money is not going to be there.”
The application to apply for a reimbursement grant for heaters and tents is expected to be online next week at leesburgva.gov.