Councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler had a few business concerns related to the coronavirus Monday. This image is from January. (Photo: Derek Kouyoumjian)

A virtual town hall on the coronavirus’ impact on small businesses was held at 3:30 p.m. Thursday by Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and vice mayor Alanna Mallon with guests including U.S. Rep. Katharine Clark, city officials and representatives of the U.S. Small Business Administration. (The town hall could be joined by watching Cambridge CCTV Channel 9 or through Zoom video chat software.)

Later Thursday, the city followed up offering grants of up to $6,o00 to small “retail, food, personal services and creative for-profit businesses.” first-come, first-served, applying through noon May 1. The program would prioritize businesses most severely affected by coronavirus closings with money from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development block grants, and there must be deemed HUD-eligible. More information on the Cambridge Small Business COVID-19 Relief Grant is here.

It addresses an issue that recurred at the Monday meeting of the City Council, as it adopted an order for the city manager to bring forward emergency appropriations of financial relief to businesses and organizations in the city, especially those not seeing sufficient state or federal assistance.

The order looked especially at the survival of arts institutions and nonprofits to “through this crisis so when we get through this, we still have those organizations in our city on the other side,” said councillor Quinton Zondervan, author of the order co-sponsored by councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler.

It joins efforts by Mallon and the Cambridge Community Foundation already looking at helping artists, musicians and local arts and cultural organizations, which launched a week ago with $125,000  from the foundation, private donors Rosemarie and Steve Johnson and the city.

But councillor Patty Nolan urged officials to think broadly about aid to small businesses.

“There are many small businesses that may not be food services or bars or nightlife who are struggling, who are worried they’re not going to pay their rent and that it will only get worse given the move toward a shelter-in-place order where people aren’t going to be leaving their homes,” Nolan said. “They are the kinds of businesses that also contribute to the fabric of life in our cities, whether it’s a toy store or a flower shop or a clothing store. Throughout the city, they are also laying off workers and shutting down.”

Business concerns

The business community has communicated some 15 concerns already being discussed by city staff, City Manager Louis A. DePasquale said, identifying deputy city manager Lisa Peterson, his assistant Matt Nelson and Community Development officials Iram Farooq and Pardis Saffari as the team engaged in the work most directly.

The city’s small-business group, Cambridge Local First, commended Saffari and her Economic Development Division for its support and engagement, including Saffari’s participation in a group call last week with some 70 representatives of local companies and retailers, and Mallon has also been boosting its work and collaborating. Nelson and the Cambridge Office for Tourism began including the group in its organizing efforts with the city’s other business associations upon request, executive director Theodora Skeadas said.

“Overall, we could certainly benefit from increased city outreach and engagement. For example, this afternoon, we participated in an hourlong conversation organized by Somerville Economic Development that included representatives from all the major Somerville business associations. It would be great if Cambridge organized more similar conversations,” Skeadas said Monday.

Enforcing a shutdown

As the city moved to shut down personal care services and some construction and the state added a list of nonessential businesses that must close, there was also a step taken to help some of the hardest-hit businesses, restaurants, by contracting with some to provide food for the homeless.

But what about businesses that are intended to close but do not, insisting that work goes on that could put their employees and customers at risk? Councillor E. Denise Simmons wondered about how shop owners who live out of town would hear of the order to close – either through city inspectors or the License Commission, the city manager explained – and Sobrinho-Wheeler wondered how shutdown orders were being enforced.

“Who should people reach out to if their employer is violating these orders? I just had someone text me that they work at a clothing store in Cambridge, and their employer is still asking them to come in and process online orders,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said.

Complaints can go through the City Manager’s Office, which will hand the issue off to the right department, DePasquale said.

Showing apartments

The council also debated an order by Sobrinho-Wheeler and Simmons to stop landlords from showing apartments to potential renters when there are current renters trying to avoid illness. There was broad support for getting landlords to move to virtual tours, but Nolan – who owns and rents out a two-family home, noted that the order would be a challenge for many; coming through a rented unit to make a video also has risks, she said.

“What are we going to do when people are looking for apartments? Large numbers of people move in and out over the summer and are starting to look for apartments now. If none of them can be shown, will this have the potential to exacerbate the housing crisis?” Nolan asked. “Not many people will actually agree to rent an apartment they cannot see.”

The order – similar to one adopted in Boston and seemingly by the state, as showing a unit was not listed as essential by a state-level order on business practices during coronavirus – was not legally binding, Sobrinho-Wheeler said and the mayor advised moving forward so Nolan’s concerns could be discussed further.

“I find it hard to believe that finding a place to live is not an essential business,” Nolan said.


This post was updated March 26, 2020, with information about the Cambridge Small Business COVID-19 Relief Grant.