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Baltimore County unveils $10 million in small business grants and contact tracing training program

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., center, holds a news conference on the first case of the coronavirus in the county last month. Olszewski announced a new grant program to help small businesses and a new program to train contact tracers.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., center, holds a news conference on the first case of the coronavirus in the county last month. Olszewski announced a new grant program to help small businesses and a new program to train contact tracers.(Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun)

A new $10 million grant program is offering help to Baltimore County small businesses hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.

The county program will award grants of up to $15,000 each to more than 650 county-based small businesses on a first-come, first-served basis.

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“We want to be clear: These are not loans. They’re grant funds to support and provide a critical bridge to our small business community who needs help right now,” County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said. Olszewski said the grants are intended for businesses unable to get money through the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

The Department of Economic and Workforce Development will administer the grants, which primarily are funded through the county’s portion of federal coronavirus relief money. The applications will be available on the department’s website beginning May 11.

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The department is also encouraging affected employers and employees to visit baltimorecountybusiness.com for an overview of resources and assistance available.

Olszewski, a Democrat, said the county’s goal is to award at least 25% of funding to women and minority-owned businesses. He stressed the county must support businesses in meeting their basic needs during the coronavirus pandemic.

Applicants must meet county qualifications, and the grant funds may only be used for payroll, operating expenses, business lease or rent and inventory acquisition vital to the business. At least 30% of the funds must be used to support payroll for non-owners, and funds may not be used for capital improvements or personal expenses.

If a business fails to reopen, all grant funds must be returned to the county within 14 days, Olszewski said.

The county also plans to pursue emergency disaster reimbursement from the federal government.

Angela Tandy owns three Sassanova Boutiques. Her businesses have been closed since mid-March, but she said they’re pivoting to online commerce. She said they’ve seen sales drop 75% to 80%.

Tandy hasn’t reviewed the county grant program yet, but she said she’s planning to see if she’s eligible. She’s worried about the welfare of her employees, including one woman who’s currently pregnant, Tandy said.

“I have a staff in total of about 47 people, and I’ve kept about 8% of my employees working and today I’ve been paying those employees with the scant sales from e-commerce as well as the savings from my account," Tandy said.

Kohli Flick, owner of the Becket Hitch lifestyle store in Green Spring Station, said her business has been closed since March 15, when she had to furlough her entire staff. Flick has applied for “everything that’s available,” and she eventually obtained funding from the Paycheck Protection Program. The federal support means her business isn’t eligible for the county grant, but she stressed the program could be a “huge relief” for some small businesses.

“I think that any help right now would be great and appreciated,” Flick said.

Olszewski’s administration also unveiled plans to offer $100,000 in grants to assist professional artists, musicians and performers.

Up to 100 artists will receive $1,000 stipends on a first-come, first-served basis until funds are depleted. The funds can be used to recoup losses from canceled performances and events, art-related travel expenses, lost teaching opportunities and loss of supplemental income for artists working in the service industry.

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Priority will be given to artists making $37,500 or less per year, according to the county. Applicants must be Baltimore County residents over age 18. Applicants will also have to document their artistic portfolio. The application process will open on May 11 and details will be available on the County Office of Tourism and Cultural Arts webpage.

Additionally, Olszewski announced a partnership with the Community College of Baltimore County to launch a training program for contact trace investigators. Contract tracing investigators identify people who may have come in contact with someone infected with coronavirus, so those infected can isolate themselves more quickly and reduce the virus’ spread. Contact tracing capacity will be “a critical component” of any efforts to reopen businesses and other institutions, Olszewski said, citing federal and state guidelines.

The county currently has 52 staff members performing contact tracing, and most of them were shifted to their roles from other positions within the county’s health department or schools. health department anticipates needing to hire 60 additional contact trace investigators by July 2020 to fill temporary positions.

In Baltimore County, those positions will require at least an associate degree and experience in customer service, strong communication skills, and knowledge of community resources. The County will also seek to fill a number of the positions with individuals who speak both English and Spanish.

CCBC President Sandra Kurtinitis said the college is ready to quickly train people for in-demand jobs.

“We are happy to participate in this partnership which will help secure the health and safety of our community," Kurtinitis said in a statement, “as well as generate a pool of specially-trained candidates for new employment opportunities.”

The training will be free and can be completed online in as little as three hours. Additional information on the training is available at www.ccbcmd.edu.

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