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Ernest Rodriguez doesn’t necessarily present as someone who knows his way around banking and finance. Maybe it’s the neck tattoo. But like the saying goes, appearances can be deceiving. In 2008, Rodriguez was working as a mortgage broker in Las Vegas and also spent time as a financial planner at Edward Jones. He now co-owns The Beerded Bean, a coffee-and-beer joint that (at least before the pandemic) attracted crowds during the day with a great atmosphere for studying or remote working and then at night with live music and other events at its shop in Oldtown Salinas.

He and his business partner, Eric del Real, have kept the business open during the pandemic, instituting protective measures that include a hand sanitizing station for customers and posting social distancing directives. They haven’t had to lay off any of their eight staff members and they’re doing their best to keep serving coffee and beer to go. But The Beerded Bean has been open less than a year and while they were doing well, the pandemic has put a stranglehold on their livelihood.

Like so many others in the same position, Rodriguez applied for federal assistance through the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, a $350 billion initiative to keep workers at small businesses employed during the pandemic shutdown. He’s also applied for a $10,000 disaster relief grant. The SBA application process was easy, he says.

What’s not easy: Finding a bank willing to take on the business and funnel the money to The Beerded Bean so they can funnel it to their employees.

“In perspective, at least we’ve been able to keep our doors open,” he says, “but it would mean a lot to be able to pay our staff without worrying too much about our margins.”

If there’s an overwhelming message from the small business community right now, it’s this: The SBA, which launched the program just on April 3, isn’t the entire problem. The banks – specifically the bigger ones – are. On the Peninsula, Jeroen Gerrese, board chair of the Monterey County Hospitality Association, says smaller hotels are having “phenomenal problems” applying for the loans and getting a response. “It’s gridlock,” he says. And at the Monterey County Business Council, CEO Kimbley Craig says she yelled at a Wells Fargo manager this week after the banking giant tapped out of the SBA program, saying it had already maxed out by doing $10 billion in loans and wouldn’t do any more.

Local banks, including Monterey County Bank, Pacific Valley Bank and Pinnacle Bank, are all participating in the program with current clientele.

“I inquired about it 10 days ago with Wells, how do I do it, how can we be a part of it, and they shut it down before I could write my name on a piece of paper,” Craig says. “If you’re a small business and you bank with a big bank, that could be a problem.”

The Business Council last week held a webinar, open to everyone, about how to apply for the disaster-relief programs. Six-hundred people participated. On April 10, they’re holding another webinar, this one specifically on the Paycheck Protection Plan. Within 24 hours of announcing it, 100 people had signed up.

“Don’t stick your head in the sand,” Craig says, when asked if she has advice to small businesses that are struggling. “Reach out to lenders and see what’s available to save your business.”

It’s hard to say the government is here to help, but according to U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, there’s movement at the federal level to deploy more money into relief programs. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says another $250 billion is needed; Panetta says that’s the minimum that’s needed. He thinks legislation to make it happen will come within a week.

“The Federal Reserve is stepping up and helping banks originate more loans, but what it comes down to is there needs to be an agreement in Congress for more legislation, and from what I’m hearing, it’s going to happen,” Panetta says. “A program this big run by the federal government is going to have hiccups, but at the same time my office is trying to walk every constituent through the program. We’re fielding calls throughout the day and into the night to help people navigate the process.”

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