PACIFIC COUNTY — As the initial wave of the covid-19 pandemic swept across the country in the spring, hundreds of thousands of small businesses were thrown a lifeboat in the form of the forgivable loans via the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

New data released by the U.S. Small Business Administration on July 6 showed that nearly 250 Pacific County businesses received at least $18.6 million in PPP loans in April, May and June. Peninsula businesses received about $10.8 million of the countywide amount.

The loans, according to the SBA data, helped businesses retain about 2,500 jobs in the county and prevent an even worse unemployment meltdown at the outset of the pandemic. Pacific County had one of the highest unemployment rates in the state in April and May, soaring to about 17%.

The PPP loan program was established as part of the federal CARES Act. The loans can be forgiven if at least 60-75% of the amount is used by a small business to continue paying its employees. The program was initially slated to expire June 30, but got extended until Aug. 8. About $132 billion in funds are still available for small businesses with 500 or fewer workers.

Hospitals, restaurants and hotels biggest area recipientsThe biggest local beneficiaries of the program were the county’s two hospitals, Ocean Beach Hospital in Ilwaco and Willapa Harbor Hospital in South Bend. Larry Cohen, CEO of OBH, said OBH received a $2.75 million PPP loan, while Willapa Harbor Hospital received a loan of at least $2 million. This helped the hospitals retain more than 300 jobs.

Local full and limited-service restaurants, hit hard by the pandemic early on because of a statewide order to close dine-in service, received at least $1.2 million from the program. The funds were spread across 27 dining establishments in Pacific County and helped retain about 240 jobs.

Hotels also closed their doors early on during the pandemic, in an effort to discourage out-of-county residents and non-homeowners from visiting the county. Eleven hotels or motels received loans totaling at least $800,000, helping to retain 144 jobs. The biggest local recipient in the industry was Adrift Hotels, which received a loan between $350,000 and $1 million.

Other industries that received loans totaling at least $500,000 include: supermarkets and grocery stores (at least $759,000); outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers (at least $700,000); logging (at least $618,000); shellfish farming (at least $562,000); pharmacies and drug stores (at least $544,000); and seafood processors (at least $538,235).

Program lauded by local business owners

For peninsula business owners, the federal relief program was key to keeping them from otherwise having to lay off or furlough large swaths of employees. Tiffany Turner, owner of Adrift Hotels, said if not for the PPP loan her business would not have been able to bring back any of her staff in a full-time capacity until the order placing restrictions on hotels was lifted in May.

With the loan secured in mid-April, Adrift was able to bring back employees who had been unable to apply for or receive unemployment benefits. All employees were eventually brought back, and Turner said they used that time as a staff to do training on new health protocols and get used to things like wearing a mask on the job so they could be ready once the hotel was able to open its doors again.

Without the loan, Turner said Adrift would not have brought anyone back until they were able to reopen, which she said would have made for a much less safe environment and would have brought back fewer employees than they have right now.

“Ultimately, we would have survived it, but I think not only did it allow businesses that maybe wouldn’t have survived it to survive, but also it allowed us to open safely,” said Turner. “And that’s critical to the health of our entire community.”

Jeff Harrell, owner of Peninsula Pharmacies, which received a loan of at least $350,000, said without the funds the pharmacy would have had to make tough choices.

“If we wouldn’t have been able to secure those funds … we would have had to reduce hours and more than likely lay off [employees],” Harrell said.

Because of the state restrictions on elective surgeries at the beginning of the pandemic, Harrell said they saw about an initial 10-15% drop in prescription volume at its locations. Over the last month or so, Harrell said Peninsula Pharmacies has been able to close the gap on that initial drop in volume. As Pacific and nearby counties entered less restrictive phases, more elective surgeries are taking place and have driven more patients to pharmacies to pick up prescriptions.

Both Harrell and Turner lauded their lender, Bank of the Pacific, and other banks in the community. Bank of the Pacific was the lender for almost one-third of all businesses that received a PPP loan in Pacific County, more than double of any other bank and accounting for at least $8.7 million of the loans awarded to the recipients.

“I think we’re really lucky in this community in that we had multiple banks that really were working tirelessly for their customers,” said Turner, especially when the program was initially rolled out. “I think that many businesses in our community would be facing a much different — at least immediate — future if the banks hadn’t really just gone above and beyond to make sure that local businesses had access to that money.”

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