Gulf coast businesses hit by COVID-19 apply for 'Ignite Mobile' grants

May 28, 2020

An Alabama Public Radio news feature.

Mobile County still leads the state in COVID-19 deaths and cases. Governor Kay Ivey’s revised response plan for Alabama includes reopening what are known as close contact businesses. The list includes hair salons, barbershops and gymnasiums. Operators and employees of these close contact businesses are still feeling the pinch from being closed for six weeks due to COVID-19. A program in Mobile is working to help some of those businesses recover.

Stay at home orders hit many businesses hard. But for some operators, shutting down from March until May with less money coming in has been especially tough. This appears especially true for close contact business, where operators have to be within touching distance of a client. These people, like hair stylists, stayed closed after other merchants could reopen.

“Well, financially, it’s been bad,” said Becky Crabtree, who operates the Fringe salon in Mobile.

Credit Pixabay

“I didn’t get any unemployment or stimulus, so it’s been kind of rough for me as an individual,” Crabtree said. “As a business owner, I have more bills to pay than just my own, you know. Keep a roof over everybody else’s head to work. I don’t think any of my girls received any unemployment either and then the stimulus. Like I says, I don’t think some of us got the stimulus either. It’s totally put a dent in my pocketbook.”

City leaders developed the Ignite Mobile o help business owners like Crabtree. Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said the program provides grants to keep them going until business and income can pick up again.

“We realized that because there were some workers and some companies that were forced to close down, they had fallen through the cracks,” Stimpson said. “So upon thinking about that there was going to be nothing that they could do to have any income over a period of time, we started contemplating what could the city do and so much to the credit of Anitra Henderson and others, we came up with the idea of let’s do a grant program where those who have fallen through the cracks could apply for a grant." 

Credit Pixabay

Anitra Henderson is director of civic engagement for Mobile. During the COVID-19 shutdown, she, Stimpson and other officials were meeting with residents and business owners to discuss what could be done.

“And a lot of them were saying we cannot pay our bills if we continue this way,” Henderson said. “We understand that this is a health threat and we want to follow the rules but we want to be able to eat.”

The grants provide from $1,000 to $2,500 for a Mobile business, depending on the number of employees.

“We wanted to put just a spark of hope back into our communities to say that we hear you,” Henderson said. “We will try to find some way to make this happen. And so as a team, we sat down and figured out, let’s specifically figure out who are our high-risk, close contact businesses and how we can assist them and that’s how Ignite Mobile came to be.”

Henderson said the program is a first for Mobile. I don’t think we’ve done anything like this because we’ve never seen a pandemic like this before, I’ve lived in the city my whole life and kind of worked around this kind of work. I can’t remember anything this during Katrina. This is like seven Katrinas at one time.”

Credit Pixabay

To be eligible, businesses have to be in the city limits and the owners cannot have received other support, such as unemployment or federal Personal Paycheck Protection loans. About 350 Mobile operators have applied for grants. Crabtree plans to apply.

“I did,” she said. “I have the two other stylists that are here.”

"They needed our cosmetology licenses and I did do that and I want to say that it was about a week ago,” said Leigh Batchelor, owner of the hair salon Leigh and Company, and she’s applied.

“I haven’t heard back,” Batchelor said. “I know it’s probably going to take a while. I can only imagine the small businesses that were affected and the great number that they’re going to have.”

Batchelor is the main breadwinner for her family. Having her business closed for six weeks, was a blow to their finances.

“It has affected my family,” she said. “My husband and I did get the first stimulus check and one of our children and that is all we’ve gotten to date. I have not received any small business increments for the salon being closed and I did file my unemployment and I have not heard back, but I did not know that every week you have to check and check every week like that. It’s been a burden."

Close contact businesses have had to take extra efforts to comply with efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, but Batchelor said the effort is worth being able to reopen.

“And of course, we’re wearing our masks and we’re not double booking like normally we would. We would have at least 30 minutes in between each client and everybody has been thankfully very patient,” she said.

While operators are working to do what they can for clients, Henderson said Ignite Mobile will provide support, financial and otherwise, for businesses on the bay.

"It’s just the spirit that’s happening in the city that people want to be heard at the end of the day,” she said.

This Alabama Public Radio news feature is part of APR effort to address the "news desert" along the state's Gulf coast. APR recruited and trained veteran print journalists in Mobile and Baldwin counties to join our news team to do radio stories from along the Gulf coast.