Nancy Brewington decided to close her massage and wellness studio March 16 over concerns that the close contact involved in providing services could be risky for both her customers and four staff members.

Some corporate clients of the Hands N Harmony Wellness Center she opened in 2011 had begun to cancel bookings, and a week later, Mayor Ron Nirenberg ordered all such businesses to close.

Now she worries about how her clients are managing without the support she provides during stressful times and, like many small businesses in San Antonio, how she was going to pay the bills that were starting to come due.

On Friday, the Small Business Association (SBA) began accepting applications for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a loan program funded with $349 billion of the $2 trillion federal stimulus package, to help business owners such as Brewington.

The forgivable loans are intended to help small businesses pay their employees during the coronavirus crisis; payroll is capped at $100,000 per employee, and the loans top out at $10 million per business.

On Saturday, Elva Pai Adams, senior vice president and small-business lending manager at Jefferson Bank, said her department was “working around the clock” processing the more than 500 applications submitted to the bank the day before.

Though Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin tweeted on Friday that $875 million in loans were being processed, it’s unclear how long it will take for businesses to get the money. Thus, while owners wait it out, they are looking for ways to stay afloat.

“I did call just about all of my creditors,” Brewington said of the action she took after closing. “We had just moved to a new building … and any discretionary funds we had went into the new site. Nothing’s in the bank.”

So she is dipping into her personal finances to pay business bills and also laid off her employees so they could begin applying for unemployment benefits. Last week, she started coming up with new ways to keep in touch with clients and bring in revenue.

Nancy Brewington sits in the lobby of Hands N Harmony Wellness Center in Universal City. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Owners of the boutique gift and décor store Feliz Modern, Ginger and Mario Diaz also have laid off employees due to lack of revenue and are managing by themselves the store’s website offerings and shipping out orders.

“It’s been an awful rollercoaster for sure,” Ginger said in an email. “But we are applying for disaster assistance with the SBA. Hopefully, that and our online sales will keep us afloat until we can reopen our doors.”

Terri Rehkopf, owner of Ippodaro Natural Salon, shut down her business March 23 and applied for the PPP loan so she won’t have to lay off her five employees. To bridge the gap between now and receiving the loan, starting Monday, they are going to sell and deliver hair color touch-up kits their clients can do at home.

“There are so many other ways of outreaching to people, and just because we’re not in salon doesn’t mean that it ends here,” Rehkopf said.

But for people like Rafael Alvarez, co-owner of Next Events & Entertainment, it’s not a matter of making payroll to keep his business going.

Around March 22, Alvarez began getting calls from some of his clients who were canceling events as the shopping malls where they operate were also shutting down. One canceled event cost him $10,000 of his average $25,000 monthly revenues.

Alvarez said his company, which has little overhead, could survive by pivoting to offer social media marketing services, but potential clients are wary of spending money right now. He is taking a cut in salary for now but feels bad for the freelancers he used to hire for events.

“I feel some level of responsibility,” said Alvarez, because he’s also worked freelance and knows what it’s like when you’re depending on an event to pay expenses.

The SBA will open on April 10 its PPP loan application for independent contractors and self-employed individuals. The forgivable loan will cover wages, commissions, income, or net earnings from self-employment and is capped at $100,000 for each employee.

In addition to local banks and credit unions, nonprofit microlender LiftFund also is administering the SBA loan program and an interest-free loan funded with $5 million by Bexar County. LiftFund has received more than 800 applications for that loan, totaling more than $40 million.

But the grant money LiftFund was managing to aid small-business owners, including one fund from the county, is already used up, said Janie Barrera, LiftFund president and CEO.

Barrera said that at the start of the crisis LiftFund quickly developed a COVID-19 loan product it’s offering small businesses and began approving four-month extensions on current outstanding loans.

“If you’ve been in business since February, and you have experienced a loss of at least 15 percent of income, then you can qualify for a loan up to $25,000,” Barrera said.

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Bexar County funded the program with $5 million and is not requiring LiftFund to pay interest on that money, she added. “So, therefore, we’re not charging the customer any interest on these loans up to $25,000.”

LiftFund also created new loan products to help businesses after Hurricane Harvey struck the coast in 2017, but this time around, the impact of the disaster is greater.

“It’s a humbling thing just to think about,” Barrera said. “It’s not only the mom and pop businesses, but it’s the big engineering companies and construction companies and hospitals. That domino effect has just been incredible.”

Skip Wood, CEO of the marketing and advertising firm The Wood Agency, founded in 1987, said business dropped off when his clients, such as Natural Bridge Caverns and Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano, were forced to stop normal operations.

His staff of 24 has been working from home since mid-March – a move that came after one employee fell ill with flu-like symptoms, leaving the entire office concerned. It took the woman several tries to get tested for COVID-19, but when she finally did, the test came back negative.

The outlook for his business was not as good, Wood said. On Friday, he applied for the SBA loan.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.