Gerrae Simons Miller, owner of Mellow Massage & Yoga in Philadelphia, said she has tried four times to apply for a loan to support her massage and yoga studio, each attempt through a different lender. She successfully submitted an application this week, only to learn a few days later that the program has been . This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Businesses like yours are closed at this time, and it's difficult to envision performing massages and other wellness services virtually. How are you, as a small business owner, coping with the shutdown?
Gerrae Simons Miller: I had a gut feeling we would close and we did, on March 16. It's been a struggle for most small businesses for various reasons, and we have all been trying to bind together and share information about the different grants and loans that are available to us. That allowed us to get on top of applying for loans and grants immediately. But even with all of the information we had, I still have nothing in terms of relief.
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That must be frustrating. What loans have you applied for?
We immediately applied for an EIDL loan because it was the first one that was available after they expanded it to cover COVID-19. I applied, they asked for more documents, and when I tried to email them, I got a message that the inbox was full, so I haven't received anything from that.
Then, when information about the PPP came out, I applied for that. I applied four times, each time through a different lender.
Why did you have to apply four separate times?
The first bank I approached was Wells Fargo, because that's the bank I have a relationship with. The application became available on Friday, April 3. I went to apply on Monday, April 6. They told me they were no longer accepting applications because they expected to reach their lending limit.
I then went to a small business lender, where I have a small line of credit, but they asked for my SS4 form, which I couldn't find. I got that form in 2005, when I was 26, and I can't wait two to three weeks for the IRS to send it. You don't need it for a loan, but you need it to support a bank account.
I tried a third time through another bank that also said I need the SS4 in order to open an account with them, so that was a no-go.
Finally, I was able to open an account at Citizens Bank and apply through them. I just got the application in Tuesday, and woke up this morning [Thursday] to see inthere is no money left anymore. It's frustrating to think that I was on top of things and applied early for loans as much as I could, and that this is where I am.
I also re-applied through Wells Fargo when they opened back up, because at this point who knows who is going to process my application first.
That sounds like a demoralizing experience.
Two or three weeks ago I was like let's come out of this stronger than we went into it and make sure the business is thriving. Now, it's been a month since we are closed, and I am starting to feel the pressure and negativity. It's hard to wake up and hear that there is no more funding. I mean, I applied four times, how was I missed?
Are you still counting on the loan? Is it a good fit for your business needs right now?
My banker at Citizen did say they were still processing loans, but I don't know how they are still processing them if the program is out of funds. I get why there is confusion around it, it was put together in two seconds. No one thought ahead about any of this and it's frustrating that there was no plan in place at all for an emergency.
As far as my business needs go, we are still in limbo, and also with the expanded unemployment benefits, it doesn't make sense to pay people to come off unemployment. At the same time, it's all there is, so that is what we are shooting for and I am thankful that this option is there. I am trying to get either that or the EIDL, whatever comes through. I hope something comes through.
Are you planning on treating it like a loan or a grant? Are you banking on the government forgiving the loan?
My goal has always been to use it for payroll — that's the purpose of the loan. But why would I do that if laid off workers are getting an extra $600 a week and we don't have any work for them to do? I would essentially be paying them for no work, which is fine, but at the end of two months, we could still be closed with no income and no savings and bills that need to be paid.
To put together a loan for payroll at a time when the country is closed and everyone is on unemployment and you pay them extra, I don't know. It's not clear what's expected of us as small businesses. But we are trying to be clear — so we don't end up with a huge loan we can't handle.
What have other small business owners in your network been saying?
In any situation, we are still all connected and it has been very easy to find six to 10 people in the same situation as me that I could start calling and texting and crying and yelling with immediately. That peer-to-peer sharing and leaning on each other makes a huge difference.
You're in a tricky situation. In your field, it's almost impossible to work while practicing social distancing.
Yeah. Our clients are calling us begging us to massage them but we can't. It isn't the right thing to do, morally or ethically. We have to keep our staff and our clients safe. We have people who have seen us weekly for years. They are in pain and have specific conditions that require them to get massages regularly.
It's a painful time for us as well as our clients. We see 150 to 200 people a week. We give them massages, acupuncture and teach daily yoga classes. We've been able to move some of that online but the majority of the business we do is massage, so right now, we are unable to work. We could try to teach stretching, but it's not the same at all.
Right. And we, as a society, could be forced to practice social distancing for a long time. What do you think your prospects are for staying in business, and eventually reopening — will Mellow survive the coronavirus?
Long-term, I don't know what the industry will look like. I think either way, it will take me quite some time to get the business back up and running the way that it was. We don't know when we will be able to touch people again, and we touch people for a living. That whole piece of it is definitely weighing on me. We have spent our lives building these things and this is potentially devastating for many of us.
Even if they "reopen the country," for people like us, that might not apply. And when we do reopen, we won't be able to open up to 150 to 200 clients a week. I don't see how we can do that much work and keep that many people in such close proximity. I don't know what it will look like when we are back at work.
We are at the four-week mark and it's really starting to hit home. But I—Mellow — will be ok! We are very confident and hopeful and leaning on a lot of faith.
I hear young children in the background. How are things on the home front?
I have a five-year-old and a four-month-old and I am used to being home because I own my own business. Our son goes to school three half-days a week, that's it. So for us, it's almost the same, except we have no income coming in.
My husband is a musician — he's a performer who plays with other artists both in the city and usually travels a lot of the week. But right as Mellow was closing, he was also getting call after call with all of his gigs being cancelled.
So neither one of you has an income right now?
We haven't figured out any income for ourselves yet at all. I applied for help for the business and got our employees on unemployment before I knew about the PPP. We are praying it doesn't affect us negatively with our rates of forgiveness but there's nothing we can do about that if it does.
We are OK as a family for right now, but we don't have any income, and who knows how long that will be sustainable for.