William “Billy” Marquez is used to hauling five containers a day from the Port of Baltimore. He owns and operates his truck, often working with Jag Transport Inc. to move goods like furniture and aluminum stock for soda cans.

Since the day the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed, blocking most container ships from entering the port, there’s been nothing to move.

Marquez is among more than 1,000 small-business owners and nonprofits who’ve turned to the U.S. Small Business Administration for emergency help as work dries up. The administration opened applications for federal Economic Injury Disaster Loans of up to $2 million on March 30, four days after the collapse, and set up three business recovery centers where business owners can get help with their applications.

Interest has been booming.

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Marquez was planning to retire within the next couple of years. He wants to spend more time with his daughter and grandchildren, he said. Without support through loans or grants to get him through the closure of the Port, he’s worried he’ll have to work the rest of his life.

“If I was able to work, I know I would be able to retire in the next year or two,” he said. “Right now, I don’t see it happening. I believe this thing put a wrench in it.”

In the last two months, Marquez’s daily haul was already dropping, closer to three to four containers a day. The global supply chain was already feeling pressure due to Houthi attacks on ships in the vital Suez Canal in Egypt.

The added uncertainty brought him to the Business Recovery Center in Dundalk to apply for an SBA loan.

Better rates than banks

The loans are designed to help businesses continue operations by covering payroll, fixed debts and other expenses. They’re available for those in Maryland, but applications from D.C. and select counties in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia are also accepted.

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The 30-year loans require no payments and accrue no interest for a year. At 4% for small businesses and 3.25% for private nonprofit organizations, the interest rates are lower than the federal funds rate and beat the terms of most banks, which have rates at around 5.5%.

However, unlike the Paycheck Protection Program loans given during the COVID-19 pandemic, these are not forgivable, SBA Administrator Isabel Casillas Guzman said at a press conference last week.

The SBA determines eligibility, terms and amounts based on the applicant’s credit history and ability to repay the loan. How quickly an application is approved depends on the complexity of the loan, according to an SBA spokesperson, from a few days to a few weeks. Guzman said most see funds deposited within two weeks of an approved application.

Small-business owners can visit two recovery centers to get help applying for loans and other assistance to get them through the Port of Baltimore’s partial closure. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

A range of businesses across industries are applying for these loans, though SBA officials said they could not yet share the specifics.

“It’s a full range of impact on our businesses, but clearly there’s heightened concern and uncertainty [about] how they can sustain in this closure of the port and whether or not pivoting to other port work or other types of jobs is feasible,” Guzman said.

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With a deadline of December 30, more applications are expected in the coming weeks and months. There’s no cap on the number of loans the SBA could approve.

Other aid is on the way.

Governor Wes Moore signed an executive order on Friday directing $60 million to provide temporary economic relief to support businesses and workers affected by the Key Bridge collapse. It’s a mixture of $25 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund and $35 million from existing agency budgets.

Millions will go to the Port of Baltimore’s Emergency Business Assistance Program to provide grants of up to $100,000 and the Worker Retention Program to provide grants to businesses at risk of laying off employees.

For those who are ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits, like contract workers, $15 million will go to the Port of Baltimore Worker Support Program. An additional $15 million heads to the Neighborhood BusinessWorks program to provide grants and low-interest loans to small businesses and nonprofits.

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A safety net in uncertain times

At the Business Recovery Center, Marquez got help tracking down the paperwork he’d need to apply for an SBA loan. He said he didn’t know where to start. But he left the meeting with an SBA representative feeling equipped to finish his application.

“He made it easy,” Marquez said. “There’s no way I could do it myself.”

Small-business owners who visit the recovery center in Canton can also connect with state and local agencies like the Maryland Department of Labor and the Anne Arundel County Office of Emergency Management. An SBA spokesperson said the aim is to create a one-stop shop of small-business resources.

Marquez, who said he makes between $125,000 and $150,000 a year, applied for a $150,000 loan.

“If I can get that, then I can ride this thing through,” he said.