COVID-19 Relief Programs Still Time to Apply for Aid

in city hall/news

One month after launching COVID-19 relief programs for small businesses and individuals, Pinellas County still a lot of money available from a $170 million federal grant. 

As of Monday, county officials report that 4,445 completed applications have been received for Pinellas Cares small business grants of $5,000, including 73 applications from Safety Harbor.  

Of that number, 1,002 checks totaling $5.11 million have been issued and the others are being processed. The deadline for applying has been extended until June 30. 

The county also received 1,928 requests from individuals for money from the Pinellas Cares Financial Assistance program which grants up to $4,000 to cover bills for living expenses. Only two completed requests came from Safety Harbor, but there were 71 calls from Safety Harbor residents seeking information about money for rent, water or electric power bills. 

Of those 1,928 individual applications, 399 had been approved as of June 4, according to county records. Applying for this program also has been extended to June 30. 

The numbers for both programs are going up every day, but the money has been going out slower than expected because of public confusion, said Pinellas County Administrator Barry A. Burton. 

Burton told county commissioners at their June 2 meeting that “we’re are doing everything we can” to reach out to the public and get claims processed. The county had set aside $35 million for the first phase of small business grants.  A phase two of the program was to have started in June but is on hold. 

Burton’s staff had identified more than 6,000 small businesses in the county that might be eligible for help when the programs launched April 30. 

The total of individuals and families has been far less than expected considering that 63,981 people were unemployed in Pinellas County as of May 22, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (up 300 percent over last year). 

“Why didn’t we get more applications?” Burton told commissioners. “The number one problem is confusion.” 

He said that 85 percent of the applications had incomplete or inaccurate information. The application process has been a challenge for some, and many were submitting incomplete documentation. Applicants for individual aid must provide documentation that they lost their job because of the coronavirus pandemic 

Burton also cited possible confusion over applying for other relief programs available such those being offered by Clearwater, Largo and St. Petersburg. 

Also, with that many incomplete applications, processing them takes more time. Burton said 60 county staffers have been pulled off their jobs to work on the applications. “We are trying to make it as simple as possible, but there are federal requirements that have to be met before we can cut a check,” he said. 

The Safety Harbor City Commission has considered starting a local COVID-19 relief program but has not been able to agree on how to do it. At the Monday, June 1, meeting commissioners agreed to hold-off taking any action to evaluate how the other programs are doing. 

Funding for the two programs comes from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The Pinellas Cares Financial Assistance offers up to $4,000 in one-time assistance to those who have lost their jobs or had a significant loss in income due to the pandemic.  The money is available to pay overdue rent, mortgage and utility bills, which is paid directly to landlords, mortgage holders or utility companies. 

For information on the small business grants go to the Pinellas County website: https://covid19.pinellascounty.org/pinellascaresbusiness/

For individual and family grants call 211 for more information or for help applying. Call volumes may be higher than usual during the application window. Text messaging ensures the most efficient response. You can also go to https://covid19.pinellascounty.org/pinellascaresindividual 

Walt spent 35 years as a reporter, feature writer. TV critic and columnist for The Tampa Tribune. Prior to that he worked in the public relations office at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and as a reporter for The Greenville (SC) News. He and his wife, Debbie, have lived in Safety Harbor for 10 years. He also taught media writing courses at the University of Tampa. Since moving here, he has been active with the Safety Harbor Art and Music Center, hosting a monthly storytelling night.