UMATILLA COUNTY — In wake of Gov. Kate Brown sending the county back to the baseline of reopening, Umatilla County is moving forward with its plans to distribute at least $1.7 million from its allocation of the federal coronavirus relief package through small business grants.

“If anything, there’s just even more of a demand and a need now,” said Gail Nelson, the county’s economic development and tourism coordinator.

The move back to baseline on July 31 shuttered all “nonessential” businesses in the county once again, leaving mostly only grocery stores, pharmacies and banks open, and forcing restaurants and bars to revert to a takeout-only model.

After the county and cities like Pendleton and Hermiston contributed to and or facilitated small business grant programs at the onset of the pandemic, the pandemic’s continued financial impact on local businesses is at the top of local governments’ priorities to address with the more than $4 million in federal reimbursements available within the county.

Umatilla County is slated to receive $2.3 million, with each city receiving funding determined by population with baselines of $50,000 for cities of more than 750 people and $25,000 of those with less. Hermiston and Pendleton will each get more than $500,000, while Umatilla ($220,000), Milton-Freewater ($210,000), and Stanfield ($66,000) will also receive additional federal dollars.

Though portions of those allocations will be used to reimburse costs directly related to COVID-19, governments may also use the funds to offer businesses and individuals assistance in their communities.

The Pendleton City Council committed at a July meeting to contributing any funds leftover from COVID-19 expenses to an emergency business grant program. The Hermiston City Council laid out their plans July 27 of dedicating about $100,000 for operations, $184,000 to business grants, and then splintering the other leftover funding between various forms of individual assistance, such as relief for rent, mortgage and utility payments.

Cities have the option to run their own individual grant programs or pool their funding into the county’s program, which is still in development with details, such as eligibility and grant amounts, still being determined.

“We’re not really there yet on the details for the cities because I think a lot of them are still trying to figure out their expenses that they’re really reimbursing for, so they don’t have their solid numbers yet of what they’d put into the program,” Nelson said.

Nelson has led a workgroup of representatives from each of the county’s 12 incorporated cities in recent weeks to determine those details, in addition to helping figure out how each of those cities can best use their own allocations.

“We’re trying to balance what is meaningful for them while justifying what businesses are selected,” Nelson said. “The point is to help the people who really need it, and we want to try and keep this a simple process for people.”

Just as the county did in its first round of emergency business grants, the latest grants will be distributed throughout the county’s various communities proportionate to population. The grants will only be available to businesses with 50 or less employees, including sole proprietors, and applicants will have to include something that quantitatively documents how the pandemic has led to lost revenue.

However, Nelson said the workgroup is still discussing what amount the individual grants will be for and what other criteria will be considered for the program’s eligibility and selection.

Hermiston Mayor David Drotzmann said at the city’s July 27 meeting he would like to see the money be available to businesses that already received some Paycheck Protection Program money, but are still struggling financially as the pandemic has lasted far longer than the federal grant covered.

But Nelson said others have voiced the desire to make these latest grants available to those who haven’t already received some form of assistance, though it’s been acknowledged that many businesses that already received some assistance are in that exact situation of which Drotzman spoke.

Ultimately, the federal funding available is so limited in relation to the needs of Umatilla County and its communities that county and city staff are trying to navigate and prioritize the most equitable way to distribute the funding they do have while trying to ensure its effectiveness for those who need it most.

“It’s kind of exciting, but it also sort of makes you pull your hair out at the same time,” Nelson said.

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The East Oregonian’s Jade McDowell contributed to this report.

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