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Western Washington County cities have created multiple assistance programs as unprecedented impacts continue.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Amelia Ramirez stands in front of Amelia's Exquisite Mexican Dining that is owned by her son, Josue Mondragon, in downtown Hillsboro. Mondragon named the restaurant in honor of his mom.During the first week of March, Josue Mondragon noticed a drop in the number of customers at his restaurants.

Mondragon, who owns Amelia's Exquisite Mexican Dining in downtown Hillsboro and Amelia's Rustic Mexican Restaurant near Griffin Oaks Park, watched the news as presumptive cases of COVID-19 began to appear in the area.

"Right away, I could pretty much already tell that people weren't coming out as much," he said. "But it was still OK."

By the weekend, Mondragon contacted his landlords.

"I felt like this might be a bad thing, and hopefully it doesn't get worse," he said, recounting the conversation.

The next Friday and Saturday night, the restaurants did about half the business they usually do, and Mondragon could tell restrictions on businesses were coming.

On Monday, March 16, Gov. Kate Brown announced she would be signing multiple executive orders, one of which was a ban on dine-in restaurant service.

Mondragon and owners of restaurants around the state scrambled to change business models to run exclusively takeout and delivery orders.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Javier Solis, a server at Amelia's Exquisite Mexican Dining in downtown Hillsboro, takes a takeout order over the phone.After just three weeks with the restrictions, small business owners like Mondragon are reeling. They've been forced to dramatically cut staff, and without a definitive grasp of how long restrictions might be in place, federal, state and local governments have been implementing assistance programs to try to keep businesses afloat.

Within the first hours of an emergency small business grant program's availability in Hillsboro, hundreds of businesses applied. The city received more than $1 million dollars in requests, doubling the amount allotted to the program.

In response, the city allocated another $500,000 for a second round of small business grants and reduced the maximum grant per business from $5,000 to $3,000 to be able to reach more establishments. Only businesses that were not selected for the first round of grants can apply to the second round on April 7.

Of the 177 businesses selected to receive the first round of small business grant assistance, 60 self-identified as minority-owned, 97 self-identified as woman-owned and eight self-identified as veteran-owned.

"The COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of having a diverse economic base consisting of businesses of all sizes and from a variety of market sectors and industries," said Dan Dias, Hillsboro economic and community development director, in a statement. "Hillsboro has been able to build a strong economic base throughout the community's history."

Other cities in western Washington County have come up with similar programs to support businesses.

Officials in Forest Grove allocated $100,000 to a rent and mortgage assistance program for small businesses within its urban renewal district with grants available up to $2,500. The city will begin taking applications on April 8.

Forest Grove has also made $25,000 available for grants up to $10,000 for local nonprofits to use on coronavirus relief projects. Applications are due by April 7 at 5 p.m.

In North Plains, officials created a "Buy Local Club," in which residents receive up to a $50 credit on their water bills based on a proportion of how much they spend on take-out at participating local restaurants.

Hillsboro has also provided $250,000 to develop a small and medium-sized business loan program, but with businesses running with skeletons of their former staff and many completely closed, the economic impacts of the crisis have extended into people's homes.

Cities have also created assistance programs to help individuals and households pay bills. Many have placed moratoriums on evictions.

Forest Grove allocated $20,000 to help low-income residents pay their water bills. For years, the city has had a fund to help residents pay their electricity bills.

In Hillsboro, officials contributed $100,000 for rent assistance through the nonprofit Community Action.

On Friday, April 3, the city announced a partnership with St. Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army of Hillsboro to deliver food from local food banks to residents struggling to pay for groceries.

"How our community has traditionally provided food to those in need works for some, but during this COVID-19 public health crisis, it doesn't work for everyone," Mayor Steve Callaway said in a statement. "

Orders will be taken by phone on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and food will be delivered the next day. The deliveries will contain enough food "to feed a small family for several days," the city said.

"We know that many of you are hurting, and we're going to help as many people as possible," said Hillsboro City Councilor Rick Van Beveren in a recorded video message, announcing the city's second round of small business grants.

Van Beveren recorded the message outside his own small business, Reedville Café, which he said has seen an 80% reduction in business since shifting to takeout only.

Nearly all of Van Beveren's about 60 employees at the restaurant and catering company are either working limited hours or have been completely laid off, he said.

The first thing Van Beveren did after laying off employees was direct them to resources to help them file for unemployment and other local assistance programs, he said.

"We've tried to reach out to all of them on a regular basis to check-in and also to offer help, you know, if somebody gets desperate we just want to make sure that they can come to us for assistance," Van Beveren said.

He is also seeing the downstream ramifications of reductions in business revenue through his property management company.

Several of Van Beveren's tenants have requested deferrals on rent payments, and because the company is large enough with some businesses still able to make payments, he has been able to work out deferrals for other smaller businesses.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A sign on Bruce's Barber Shop window in downtown Hillsboro states it will be closed until April 14."I do worry (about) small businesses that are undercapitalized or start-ups," Van Beveren said, adding that many property management companies don't have the ability to make such agreements with tenants. "We'll do everything we can on our part to stand them back up, but that may not be enough."

Deanna Palm, president of the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce, said she has been in contact with business owners continuously since the restrictions were implemented.

"Every single business owner that I've talked to that has had to furlough employees or lay them off, it is absolutely torture," Palm said. "The primary thing that they're asking is what kind of assistance, what kind of support can I get for my team."

The chamber, which has had to lay off six employees of its own, has been linking federal, state and local assistance programs on its website to individuals and employers.

"We've tried to share information about assistance programs as soon as possible," Palm said, adding that she's also been working with business owners to help them establish effective digital communication with employees who are still working.

The chamber has also created a "virtual tip jar" where people in service industries who have been laid off can list their name and contact info and people can donate.

Palm said in 35 years working with the chamber, she's seen multiple recessions, but nothing has been as dramatic as this.

"Nothing that I've ever experienced has been this drastic, this quick. I mean, it was a complete full stop," Palm said. "No business has been unaffected."

She said business owners had little time to plan for the changes that were coming.

"This is not something that anybody learns in entrepreneurial school," Palm said. "There's really not a blueprint that any one of us that work in the business community can pull off the shelf and say 'here's what we do.'"

That's meant businesses are making changes to operations at a rate they never would have done in other circumstances. Palm said the experience will likely motivate business owners to plan differently in the future.

"There's going to be a greater thought process around, 'OK, how much money do we need to have in savings, how does that look in terms of planning in the future," Palm said, adding that she recently read a recommendation that businesses have one to two months of savings for future events like this.

She said it's too early to tell what the long-term effects of the crisis will be, and while she is optimistic about businesses' ability to innovate and use the assistance programs to stay afloat, she knows not all businesses will survive.

"Some of them will not be able to withstand the duration of this," Palm said. "For the most part, we're going to end up with folks taking advantage of these programs that allow them to make it through."

Mondragon said he's trying to make sure his restaurant can function as it had been when the restrictions are fully lifted.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Maricela Garcia, a cook at Amelia's Exquisite Mexican Dining, makes a burrito for a customer for a lunch takeout."I have no idea that, when I am able to open back up, whether I'll be able to hire everybody back and be ready to go, or if I'll have to hire new people and retrain everyone," he said.

Mondragon said he knows employees he laid off will likely look for employment elsewhere, and he worries about other long-lasting impacts.

"It's a little bit more complicated than just not being able to sell right now," he said.


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