HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock today announced a first round of COVID-19 relief programs funded by Montana’s $1.25 billion in coronavirus aid from the federal government. Between them, the nine first-round programs will provide grant opportunities to small businesses, nonprofits, social service agencies and individual Montanans who need help with housing costs.

At this point, $123 million is allocated to the first-round programs, though Bullock said the state plans to assess demand and replenish them accordingly. Applications for the assistance will open Thursday, May 7, through a state website at covidrelief.mt.gov.

“Montanans have made it clear that we must step in and do everything possible to ensure that small businesses can responsibly reopen, that nonprofits can continue to serve our communities, that homeowners can stay in their homes, and Montanans most in need can have access to services,” Bullock said at a Tuesday press briefing.

Three of the nine programs are focused on relief for businesses, including nonprofit organizations.

  • The Montana Business Stabilization Grant Program will provide small businesses with up to $10,000 of working capital. Montana-owned businesses with 50 or fewer employees and a “sustained loss of revenue” since Feb. 15 due to COVID-19 are eligible. $50 million is allocated.
  • The Montana Innovation Grant Program will help businesses scale up products or services developed in response to COVID-19 with grants of up to $25,000. For-profit and nonprofit businesses of 150 employees or fewer are eligible. $5 million is allocated.
  • The Montana Food and Agriculture Adaptability Program will offer grants of up to $10,000 to food and agriculture businesses in order “to help increase community resilience” during the pandemic. $500,000 is allocated.

Montana Department of Commerce Director Tara Rice said Tuesday that the state’s intent with the business assistance programs is to distribute relief as quickly as possible, particularly to businesses that have been unable to access federal relief efforts like the Paycheck Protection Program or Economic Injury Disaster Loans.

“So many businesses in the state right now are really struggling to keep it together and make ends meet, and it’s really designed to be simple and something that they can access with speed,” Rice said.

Funds could be delivered to businesses in 10 to 15 business days, said Deputy Budget Director Amy Sassano.

Also announced Tuesday was an emergency housing assistance program, which can provide as much as $2,000 a month in housing assistance to Montanans who have lost income as a result of the pandemic and are now paying more than 30% of their income for housing. $50 million is allocated for that program.

The initial state relief round also includes five other programs, one of which was first announced last week:

  • Social services grants of up to $10,000 for nonprofit organizations impacted by COVID-19, designed to help them stay viable through the pandemic. Montana-based social service nonprofits operating prior to Feb. 15, 2020 are eligible. $10 million is allocated.
  • Public health grants, first announced April 29, designed to help local and tribal health departments support contract tracing and other COVID-19 efforts. $5 million is allocated.
  • Food bank and food pantry assistance grants of up to $50,000 to bolster food security. $2 million is allocated.
  • Telework assistance grants for Montanans with disabilities, providing up to $1,000 per individual to help purchase equipment for teleworking. $650,000 is allocated.
  • “Stay Connected” grants, which offer as much as $2,000 to help senior centers and nursing homes encourage “physically distant forms of social interaction” for elderly Montanans who may be isolated by social distancing measures. $400,000 is allocated.

The governor said the programs were developed based on input from an advisory task force of business representatives and others, which considered more than 1,400 public comments about how to spend Montana’s $1.25 billion federal relief allocation. That group, which delivered its formal recommendations to the governor Friday, may have violated state open meeting laws by gathering via group calls that weren’t accessible to the public, Montana Free Press reported previously.

Bullock said Tuesday he expects the state to release at least some information about who receives assistance through the business grants.

“We’re still going through what will be disclosed from the business grants, but I would anticipate that will end up publicly posted,” he said.

The funding allocated to the first-round programs totals slightly less than a tenth of the overall CARES Act amount provided to the state, meaning the bulk of Montana’s federal assistance  money remains to be spoken for.

“This is just an initial round of funding based on the immediate needs identified by Montana small businesses,” Bullock said. “There will certainly be additional funding announced in the future.”

Eric Dietrich

Eric Dietrich a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. He has worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org and follow him on Twitter.