In this Monday, March 30, 2020, photo, a line of around fifty people extends from the door of Arkansas Workforce Center in Fayetteville, Ark. Credit: JT Wampler | The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP

Federal investment is a powerful tool in the fight against the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its staggering economic impact. So too is information.

Resources will be increasingly available as the Trump administration implements the $2.2 trillion economic relief package, known as the CARES Act, that became law on March 27. As that implementation process continues, and as Maine and the country navigate record numbers of unemployment claims and widespread economic uncertainty, it is absolutely critical that individuals and businesses have the clear information they need to quickly understand and access those resources. The power of these federal initiatives will depend in large part on awareness and accessibility.

Friday was the first day that small businesses could apply for federally guaranteed loans under the new Paycheck Protection Program created in the CARES Act. As part of this nearly $350 billion program, if loan recipients keep all employees on their payroll for the eight-week loan period, then the portion of the loan that went to payroll costs will be completely forgiven. Costs related to mortgages, rent and utilities can also be forgiven. Importantly, the program is retroactive to Feb. 15, which allows businesses to rehire recently laid-off employees and still qualify for loan forgiveness.

This program, if administered well, offers a significant incentive for businesses to keep people employed. And that will be key to weathering the current crisis of economic confidence.

The Paycheck Protection Program is just one piece of the federal response to the massive economic slowdown we are experiencing right now because of the virus, and not all businesses will be eligible — and it may not be the right fit for every eligible business. But the Maine State Chamber of Commerce is absolutely right: Maine businesses should consider applying for these loans during this difficult time.

“It is extremely important that Maine businesses consider applying for a ‘Paycheck Protection Program’ forgivable loan to help them stay connected with their employees during the pandemic,” Maine State Chamber of Commerce President Dana Connors said in a statement on Thursday. “These loans are critical to helping Maine businesses, economy and workforce get through this crisis so they can get back to business as soon as we get to the other side of it.”

The Small Business Administration has posted information online about the loans and who can apply. A program application is available through the U.S. Treasury Department. The Maine Chamber has compiled a list on its website of eligible lenders in the state. The chamber has also put together a checklist for businesses.

According to the Small Business Administration, “This program is for any small business with less than 500 employees (including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and self-employed persons), private non-profit organization or 501(c)(19) veterans organizations affected by coronavirus/COVID-19.”

Businesses with more than 500 employees in some industries may still qualify. Businesses in the hospitality and food industries that have multiple locations could qualify if each location has fewer than 500 employees.

The application period extends through June 30, but time is of the essence and funds are not unlimited, so businesses should look into those loans as soon as possible. Independent contractors and self-employed individuals can apply starting Friday, April 10.

This new program is coming together rapidly, hiccups are almost guaranteed, and loans won’t be approved and available instantly. This past week, some lenders were voicing concerns about program guidance and requirements. The Treasury and Small Business Administration have made updates to initial guidance and structure.

Sen. Susan Collins, who helped lead the effort to create the Paycheck Protection Program, was asked about the program rollout in an interview with the BDN on Thursday.

“Just this morning, I had a conference call with [Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin] in which we discussed the rollout of the paycheck protection program that I co-authored,” Collins said. “There were some issues that Maine community bankers had raised with me in a telephone call earlier this week and that small businesspeople and the hospitality industry had raised, and I am cautiously optimistic that we’ve gotten those issues resolved.”

Collins’ office also told the BDN editorial board on Friday that in addition to the call with Mnuchin, “her staff has been working closely with [the Small Business Administration] to stress the urgency that these funds reach small businesses as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

It may be too soon to know if Collins’ cautious optimism was well-placed. For now, the overriding message about this program is that businesses — if they haven’t already — should be connecting with eligible lenders to see if they qualify for the loans, and if the program makes sense for them as we all work to get through this period of uncertainty.