Arcadia National Bar stands empty in Portland on Thursday Dec. 10, 2020. The bar, which has an arcade game theme, has been closed since the start of the pandemic. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Small businesses hurt by the pandemic can access more loans and grant money in the $900 billion stimulus bill approved by President Donald Trump in late December.

The relief bill allocates $284 billion for another round of the federal Paycheck Protection Program, a popular forgivable loan program for small businesses championed by Sen. Susan Collins in the first coronavirus stimulus package last March. Maine businesses applied for more than 28,000 loans totaling close to $2.3 billion as of last August.

Key changes to the program this time around aim to make it more helpful and easier for small businesses, Diane Sturgeon, deputy director of the Small Business Administration for Maine, said Wednesday on a monthly teleconference call hosted by Maine Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Heather Johnson. The Small Business Administration administers the paycheck protection and other pandemic relief loan and grant programs.

New borrowers, which can have 500 employees or fewer, can request up to $10 million. They must show a gross revenue loss of 25 percent during one quarter of 2020 compared to the same quarter in 2019.

The new stimulus bill also allows businesses to apply for a second paycheck protection loan, but the requirements are stricter. Businesses can only have 300 or fewer employees, and the maximum loan amount is $2 million. Businesses also must have spent all the money from their first loan before applying for the second.

At least 60 percent of all PPP loans must be used for payroll to have the loan forgiven. Businesses with loans of $150,000 or less qualify to use a simplified forgiveness application.

Under the new bill, publicly traded companies are not eligible for the loans. That had been a source of controversy with the previous loan program. Some 400 public companies received Paycheck Protection Program loans last year, according to analytics firm FactSquared. About 63 of them had returned loans worth $510 million as of the May 2020 deadline set by the U.S. Treasury Department, while loans worth an estimated $900 million were not returned, according to FactSquared’s data.

There’s also good news for restaurants, bars and hotels, which have been especially hard hit by the pandemic. Most eligible businesses get a maximum loan that is 2.5 times their average monthly payroll costs, meaning the loan would fund two-and-a-half months of payroll expenses. But restaurants, bars and hotels can qualify for loans worth up to 3.5 times their average monthly payroll costs.

Another key change, Sturgeon said, is that the period the loans will cover is eight to 24 weeks. In the previous program, loans covered either 8 weeks or 24 weeks. Sturgeon said the new date range gives businesses that couldn’t rehire staff because of pandemic restrictions more flexibility to be able to hire them so they can meet the 60 percent payroll requirement to get the loan forgiven. The deadline to rehire employees for new loans isn’t yet set, she said.

Sturgeon emphasized the importance of meeting the 60 percent payroll requirement on the loans. In the last round of PPP loans, some Maine businesses did not use the money for payroll and their loan was not forgiven, she said. However, she said the stimulus also includes provisions that could help businesses that couldn’t rehire everyone.

The stimulus bill also allocates $15 billion for grants of up to $10 million for concert venues, independent movie theaters and museums through a grant program called “Save Our Stages.” However, businesses that received PPP loans cannot apply for the grant, Sturgeon said.

Another federal relief program, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, was scheduled to end last year but it has been extended until the end of 2021. More than 10,400 such loans were approved for Maine businesses as of November 2020 totaling more than $597 million. The 30-year loan is not forgivable, but the interest rates are comparatively low at 2.75 percent for a nonprofit organization and 3.75 percent for a for-profit small business. Loan payments are deferred for one year.

Sturgeon said some details for the loans and grants still are being worked out and should be available later this week or next week.

Lori Valigra, investigative reporter for the environment, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...