Melanie Boudar was whipping up some fresh chocolates and preparing to-go boxes of sweets for customers at her local shop, the Art of Chocolate/Cacao Santa Fe, when she heard the good news.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday had signed into law a bill allowing the state to use federal CARES Act funds to provide economic relief for New Mexico residents and businesses walloped by the effects of COVID-19.

Part of that deal is $100 million in grants, capped at $50,000 each, for small businesses owned by state residents. To qualify, a business can employ no more than 100 people and must be facing economic hardship due to the pandemic.

Boudar’s store has lost more than half its revenue and three of its employees this year. She hopes the state’s aid package will help her get by.

“We’re thrilled. We most definitely will apply for it,” she said. “We just need to know how it’s going to work.”

Several business owners around Santa Fe were hoping to benefit from the pandemic relief bill passed by the New Mexico Legislature in a special session Tuesday.

The big questions they asked are: How will the application process be carried out, and when will the grants become available?

The New Mexico Finance Authority, which will administer the small-business grant fund, was working on those details Wednesday, said the authority’s CEO, Marquita Russel.

The bill has narrow parameters for administering the grant program, she said — such as prioritizing small businesses in the hospitality and leisure industry and ensuring equitable dispersion of funds across the state.

The authority must define such guidelines for the application process.

“We’re not sure how it will work yet,” Russel said. “The Legislature put in a couple of broad priorities for us to work, so we are in process of developing the policies to hit those policy targets of the bill.”

Still, she said the authority plans to have an application available online sometime during the week of Dec. 7. The approval process will be set up in three rounds, and grants will be awarded before the end of 2020, she said.

“We don’t want it to be a first-come, first-served process,” Russel said, adding, “$100 million is a lot of money, but it’s still only going to serve a small portion of the businesses in need.”

State lawmakers and industry leaders have been seeking ways to address the pandemic’s financial burden on small businesses since it began in March.

A number of businesses in the Santa Fe area, including Il Piatto restaurant, Dynamic Fitness, and Todos Santos Chocolates and Confections, have closed since that time.

Others are barely hanging on.

Roland Richter, who runs Joe’s Diner on Rodeo Road, laid off his chef and took over cooking duties himself to cut back on expenses. Since the start of the pandemic, Richter has laid off at least 10 employees, he said Wednesday.

“It’s all getting very, very thin right now,” he said while preparing Thanksgiving dinners for pickup.

While he awaits the details of the grant guidelines, he said he plans to apply for the full amount. Richter received aid from the federal Paycheck Protection Program earlier this year, but those funds ran out a month ago. A grant of $50,000 from the state would “keep me going the next three or four months and help me pay my staff,” he said.

Dolores Rios, manager of the nearly 50-year-old Ben’s Automotive Services on Fifth Street, said her shop is also planning to apply for a grant to “help us meet payroll.” Her business’s federal PPP funds also have run out.

Rios said the auto shop has experienced a decrease in business of about 40 percent — and layoffs of two employees — since March.

“A lot of people are holding back from spending,” she said. The small-business grant “could make a big, big difference for us and really help.”

Along with small businesses, the legislation creating the grant program allows the state to distribute the money to nonprofits, veterans organizations and benevolent associations.

Recipients won’t have to pay back the funds, like they would through a loan program, Russel said, but there will be some strings attached.

“We want to make sure the money is used for its intended purposes,” she said. “We hope it provides a lifeline for businesses impacted by the pandemic.”

Russel said anyone interested in providing input on details of the application process can submit comments online through Saturday at the authority’s website, nmfinance.com.

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

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