BISMARCK — With a rapidly changing economy due to the deadly coronavirus outbreak, government officials are trying to get the latest information out to the state’s business community, all of whom are hungry for support.

COVID-19 related fears have knee-capped North Dakota’s businesses, and a near societal shutdown have left many unemployed, while their employers are left with questions of what to do next.

“None of us could’ve imagined how our focus would shift onto the retention of wealth (in North Dakota),” North Dakota Department of Commerce Commissioner Michelle Kommer said Thursday, March 26, on the second of what will now be a regular business briefing conference call, hosted by The Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce.

The majority of the call was focused on U.S. Small Business Administration District Director Al Haut’s updates on SBA disaster relief loans.

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Haut said the SBA’s assistance portal was down on March 25 due to overwhelming traffic and the need to add bandwidth. He said there are 73,000 small businesses in North Dakota, and all of them have been impacted by the coronavirus.

The working capital loans, which must be paid back, are not meant as a panacea during the pandemic, but businesses have been encouraged to see if they qualify.

There are some forgiveness aspects to the loans.

“The frontline (person) on that is going to be your local lender,” Haut said.

A number of inquiries have centered on how much money to request, Haut said, and he suggested businesses apply for enough to cover obligations through the next 60 days.

While there are other changes to the loan program coming, Haut said, they’re not official as of yet.

“At the end of the day, there’s going to be a number of options for small businesses to get the financing they need," he said. "We just need to have a little bit of patience to get there.”

Eric Hardmeyer, president of the Bank of North Dakota, said there will be unmet needs as the SBA loan program rolls out, but he said the bank has “hundreds of millions of dollars” of liquidity and is ready to help as needed.

Hardmeyer also said the bank has already seen thousands of applications for student loan payment deferments and expect to see more.

North Dakota Secretary Al Jaeger said remote notary public services, covered in state law, have been put into place so business can proceed as needed.

There are two requirements, Jaeger said. First, his office must be notified of the remote need, and, second, the technology being used must be identified, most importantly the provider to be used. A list of eligible providers are available from Jaeger’s office.

Jon Godfread, North Dakota's Insurance Commissioner
Jon Godfread, North Dakota's Insurance Commissioner

Jon Godfread, North Dakota Insurance Department commissioner, clarified some points of the business interruption policies that have been put into place, but which he pointed out were not designed to price or cover global pandemics.

Insurance, he said, is designed to function best when there are manageable claim numbers, spread across a broad group. While the insurance sector remains strong, if they were forced to cover all claims submitted at this time, the system could create “solvency risk.”

More guidance would be available in “the coming days,” Godfread said.

Bryan Klipfel, executive director of North Dakota Workforce Safety & Insurance, said updates on unemployment insurance are being looked at daily, and there are federal guidelines for employees quarantined or unable to work due to COVID-19.

He said for businesses forced to close, reduce staff hours, or layoff employees due to the coronavirus, it’s now part of state law that their individual employment insurance account won’t be charged for any benefits paid.

“It will be charged to the pool in general,” Klipfel said.

Contract workers, he said, are ineligible to receive employment benefits, but there are provisions in upcoming federal legislation that will apply to them.

Speculation is rampant on what the Senate-approved $2 trillion stimulus package, also known as The Cares Act, will mean for local businesses. The act is set to be debated by the U.S House of Representatives Friday, March 27.

Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford
Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford

North Dakota Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford said shelter-in-place orders from other states are being looked at compared to what’s going on in North Dakota, especially when it comes to lists of essential services.

“We’re very happy with the direction we’ve gone,” Sanford said. “We feel we have a few more tweaks to make.”

Sanford said the restrictions already in place on moving around and public spaces, are “where we want to be today.”

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