A panorama of of the Bay Area’s peninsula region, including San Mateo County, San Mateo bridge and East Bay Hills in the background. (Shutterstock)

A panorama of of the Bay Area’s peninsula region, including San Mateo County, San Mateo bridge and East Bay Hills in the background. (Shutterstock)

How San Mateo County is supporting businesses with a new COVID relief fund

San Mateo County supervisors approved a relief fund of up to $5.8 million Tuesday for local businesses that lost sales because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program — the “San Mateo County Environmental Health Fee Relief Program” — covers annual permitting fees for local businesses that are monitored by the county’s Environmental Health Services Division.

The division oversees over 14,000 businesses in the county by conducting inspections, issuing permits, responding to complaints and ensuring that businesses comply with state regulations. The division charges businesses annual fees to cover the cost of these services.

Fees can range from a couple hundred dollars to thousands of dollars for larger businesses.

Supervisor Dave Pine, who co-sponsored the proposal along with Supervisor Warren Slocum, said that the relief fund was a grassroots effort.

“A business in my district, Nuts for Candy, brought to my attention a series of invoices from the county that were coming due right in the middle of the darkest days of the COVID economic restrictions,” Pine said. “So, on the one hand we were standing up various programs to support small business but on the other hand we were sending them these permit fee renewals.”

With the relief fund, qualifying businesses that are monitored by the division would receive funding to cover the cost of annual fees, starting with the July 2021 billing cycle.

The relief funding would help about 5,400 businesses, with a focus on small businesses and industries most impacted by the pandemic, like retail and food, public pools and spas, body art and massage, hospitality and commercial and industrial sectors.

Heather Forshey, director of the Environmental Health Services Division, said they aim to make it easy to access the relief.

“To do this, our strategy focused on identifying entire categories of permits or industries, rather than have teams of environmental health staff sift through our database and determine eligibility business by business,” Forshey said.

They plan to create an online process whereby eligible businesses will automatically see the credit applied to their next annual invoice.

While most retail food businesses like coffee shops, bakeries, candy shops, breweries and wineries would be eligible, larger markets would need to submit an attestation form proving that they are independently owned and have two or fewer locations in the county.

Those larger markets will receive the attestation form in the mail or by email, Forshey said.

John Hutar, president and CEO of the San Mateo County/Silicon Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, thanked the supervisors for their leadership.

“It is a great example of the board listening to small business,” Hutar said, adding that it will help businesses get back on their feet as the state looks towards reopening on June 15.

According to a staff report, about 5 percent of retail food businesses regulated by the Environmental Health Services Division had closed permanently because of the pandemic.

Others may be in danger of closing.

Amy Buckmaster, president and CEO of Chamber San Mateo County, a local chamber of commerce, said that it will take most small business owners years to fully recover from the impact of the pandemic.

“While we all celebrate full tables at restaurants, shoppers in stores, and office workers coming back in the coming months — we don’t see the credit card bills, unpaid rent, cashed-in 401k accounts, or loans used to survive the past 15 months,” Buckmaster said in a statement.

The total cost of the program is estimated at $5,754,008. But since the number of eligible businesses may fluctuate, the board approved a fund of $5.8 million.

The Environmental Health Services Division will contribute $650,000 to the fund from its reserves. The rest will come from the county’s general fund and be reimbursed through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the economic stimulus plan approved by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in March.

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