Many small businesses throughout the country have taken a hit during the pandemic. But in Wyoming, various grant programs have helped businesses, nonprofits and even churches whether the storm.
Pinebeach Inc. is a family-run screen-printing business in downtown Laramie. Like many of the shops, restaurants and other businesses in Wyoming, Pinebeach felt the impacts of the pandemic.
"If it wasn't for the face mask sales, we probably wouldn't be here, to be honest," said Pinebeach Inc. Manager Nolan Carter. "Everything was trending up for the past five years, and then all of a sudden, it just crashed. And so we don't know what's going to happen. Which is kind of fun but kind of scary at the same time."
Far from being unique, Pinebeach is one of many businesses that got by with a little help from government grants.
Wyoming businesses received at least $1.5 billion of federal support through two major programs launched in response to the pandemic.
About one-third of that total - nearly $500 million - was distributed to small businesses, energy companies, farmers, nonprofits and religious organizations through the CARES Act.
The Wyoming Business Council handled the distribution of these funds, awarding grants to some 9,000 businesses in 2020.
Business Council CEO Josh Dorrell said those grants had two major focuses.
"There were what we would call mitigation funds," he said. "That was really intended to keep employees and customers safe."
That money could be, and was, spent on cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment (PPE), or anything that helped with social distancing.
"There were a number of other funds that were business relief," Dorrell said. "And those focused on the losses that a business incurred due to COVID."
These relief funds were aimed at compensating businesses for the revenue they lost because of shutdowns, government restrictions or the economic downturn. Some businesses received tens or hundreds of thousands through these various grant programs.
In Albany County, Snowy Range Resorts, Carbon Geocycle and Yellowstone Hospitality got upwards of $300,000 dollars each. Hensley Property Holdings, which owns Roxie's on Grand, received $244,000.
But on the extreme other end were places such as Pinebeach Inc., which received just $500 through the mitigation fund, mainly for cleaning supplies.
Nolan Carter, Pinebeach's manager, said he has mixed feelings about the other CARES-backed grants.
"The first round, we could have gotten $120,000 for nothing," he said. "They were just going to give $120,000 just because we had one bad quarter."
And yet, Carter said that felt like a godsend. They considered using that money to invest in their business. Ultimately, their application fell through, and in hindsight, Carter said that's for the best.
"We came out just fine," he said. "We actually came out slightly ahead. It would have felt good to pad the numbers, but it feels even better to know that we were able to fight through it and survive."
Carter said he's more conservative and doesn't like the feeling of accepting what he considers to be a government handout.
Wyoming Business Council CEO Josh Dorrell said that many in the state felt the same way.
"That's a good, healthy attitude to have," Dorrell said. "We want to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and we want to make this thing on our own - that's a pretty Wyoming or entrepreneur type of attitude and we did encounter that."
Dorrell said the council encouraged Wyoming business owners to recognize that this pandemic is an exceptional, once-in-a-century type of event.
"We wanted to make sure people weren't so proud that they left their employees or their communities in a lurch because they were too proud to take that money," he said.
CARES Act funding was not the only source of federal money set aside for businesses.
In fact, it wasn't even the largest. Wyoming businesses got less than $500 million through CARES, but they received more than $1 billion through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
Amy Lea runs the Small Business Administration's Wyoming office. She said the PPP stepped in to offset payroll costs.
"There were 13,580 loan approvals totalling over a billion dollars made to Wyoming small businesses," Lea said. "That was really the key point of the legislation - to keep people attached to the companies they work with and keep them working during a very uncertain time."
Many businesses drew on both CARES funding and PPP loans to cover hardships incurred in 2020. For example, while Pinebeach shied away from larger CARES-backed grants, they took PPP loans to keep paying employees even as their shop was empty.
Laramie's Developmental Preschool And Daycare Center is a 100-employee nonprofit organization. Executive Director Jaime Stine said they received about $500,000 between paycheck protection and a business relief grant.
"Between the two programs, we were able to keep all our employees employed," she said. "We were able to keep paying them throughout the course of the year."
Those funds helped the preschool and its affiliated programs stay in business without charging parents tuition when the school was closed. It covered additional staffing costs and some technology upgrades that allowed for social distancing.
"We're a nonprofit organization, so we run pretty close as far as budget goes," Stine said. "We didn't go for any of the frills or anything like that, just the stuff we absolutely had to have."
The pandemic is still impacting local businesses, but more relief is on the way.
Lea said the latest COVID relief bill from Congress set aside more than $280 billion dollars for additional PPP loans.
Those include first-draw loans - for businesses that never received paycheck protection in 2020. And they include second-draw loans - for businesses who did receive paycheck protection but now need more assistance to keep going.
"It's really important that we get all of the assistance we can to our Wyoming small businesses," Lea said. "This has been just a very challenging year for them and we want them to emerge from all of this in a better position."
Yet, it might still be a long time before Wyoming can get back to business as usual.