PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — More than two years into the pandemic, we’re starting to get a better sense of how cities like Philadelphia have responded to help local businesses during the public health crisis.
In recent discoveries from Pew Trustsmost cities have been able to find ways through regulations and permits to help businesses keep operating.
Sophia Neth, co-owner of Sophie’s Kitchen in South Philadelphia, said she first opened the doors to her Cambodian restaurant in 2019.
“It was good,” Neth said. “Then the pandemic hit, and it was bad.”
In April 2020, Neth, her husband and two of their children contracted COVID-19, sending them to intensive care.
They closed the restaurant for a few months, eventually reopening for takeout when they recovered.
But as the weeks turned into months, they began to have a backlog of bills for utilities, gas, rent and other payments.
Luckily, Neth said, their landlord worked with them to help pay their rent when they could.
At one point they feared they would have to close, but Neth said his family, loyal customers and financial assistance from small business loans helped keep them stable.
While doing research to apply for small business loans, a client walked in and told Neth about the City of Philadelphia grants.
“It helped a lot,” says Neth. “Somehow that kept us from getting kicked out of this place.”
She said he helped her apply and get a grant, which helped her start paying her list of bills.
“Businesses were really struggling, and they still are,” says Karen Fegely, assistant director of commerce for the city of Philadelphia.
“However, I think this city sprang into action, and we were really very intentional and tried very hard to reach people with as many resources as possible.”
Fegely said a relief fund was deployed before the end of March 2020. This required the Commerce Department and other city offices to work quickly together to find a way to help get the money through. business owners in difficulty.
She said they work closely with the Department of Revenue on many things, to help protect businesses from evictions.
A typical municipal program could help a struggling business if it can prove it’s up to date with its taxes, Fegely explained.
She said throughout the pandemic they have been able to help locate and contact these struggling businesses to provide relief funds to people at risk of losing them.
“We don’t want to punish anyone, especially someone who might be behind on their taxes, just because of the pandemic,” Fegely says. “We had to really think about businesses and where they are located, and [that] our objective was to keep them in business, but also to ensure that they are good partners with the city.
The pandemic has forced some offices to help improve customer service, provide new ways for people to access payment plans, and the Commerce Department to work closely with these other offices to help assist business owners. company, as Pew’s findings showed.
The researchers said the big changes involved communications between business owners and other city offices, connecting business owners with financial support, helping them navigate relief funding programs and initiating other city-specific programs.
The Pew Charitable Trusts interviewed city officials, including Justine Bolkus here in Philadelphia, to gather these findings specific to city governments.
Sophie Bryan, Senior Director of Pew’s Philadelphia Research and Policy Initiativetold KYW Newsradio that while the 14 different cities they looked at had their own unique issues, they saw similar themes among city leaders.
She said they saw there was a need for real-time data from businesses, and in their research they saw there was a shift in the way information was both collected and communicated.
“Breaking down silos between departments, being more accommodating on rules and regulations, especially for business sectors that have been hit hard by the pandemic, and using local resources to fill gaps left by federal programs and larger states,” Bryan said.
They also found that this real-time data helped better connect public servants with business owners.
Unique to Philly, Bryan says the city has helped businesses with evictions.
“In our research, we found that Philadelphia was the only city to have this type of eviction protection in place, specifically targeted for one industry,” Bryan explained.
She said she hopes this information will be useful as the economic recovery from the pandemic continues.
“The number of businesses we served and connected with during the pandemic was huge,” Fegely says.
“We may have helped them with a grant at the time. But now the next time the company needs help with something else, whether it’s just a problem doing business in town or is ‘Hey, I want to grow and open a new site,’ we’re hoping they’ll consider calling us so we can connect them to whatever resources are available.”
Now Neth said they are starting to see business slow again.
A big struggle right now, she said, is finding and hiring people to help out at the restaurant, two years after their restaurant was shut down by the pandemic.