For Ty Gurney, owner of his namesake surf school on Lewers Street in Waikiki, there’s been at least one bright spot in a tough year. Like thousands of Hawaii businesses, Gurney tapped into the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which essentially provided free cash to thousands of small businesses.

As the curtain closes on 2020, the SBA has finally released details of the smallest loans, which went to companies like Gurney’s.

Altogether some $2.5 billion went to 25,010 businesses, according to the SBA’s PPP database. That included some big loans to major players: FCH Enterprises, owner of Zippy’s restaurants, got the maximum $10 million, for instance, and so did Kyo-ya Hotels & Resorts, which owns the Moana Surfrider Hotel, Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Sheraton Waikiki Hotel, Sheraton Princess Kaiulani Hotel and Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa.

But tens of thousands of small companies also got money. In fact, some 6,000 Hawaii companies got loans of $1,000 or less, and approximately 20,400 received loans of $100,000 or less.

For Gurney, the $16,260 he received made a difference.

Lone sunbather fronting the fenced Halekulani Hotel during COVID-19 pandemic.
A lone sunbather relaxed in front of the shuttered Halekulani Hotel in November. Among the 25,010 Hawaii businesses that benefited from the federal Paycheck Protection Program is a surf school that depended on a base of customers from the long-closed hotel. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Although technically loans, the PPP money, which was part of the federal CARES Act, doesn’t have to be paid back if it’s used to cover qualifying expenses like payroll, rent or utilities.

“Having that PPP money was huge,” says Gurney. “For anybody to give you money and say you don’t have to pay it back if you use it for the right thing, it’s fantastic.”

Many of the flaws with the program have been documented. Nationally, some big restaurant chains like Shake Shack made headlines, and gave the money back, when it came out they exercised a loophole to get loan money intended for small businesses.

More common were complaints that the program didn’t really help the companies that needed it most. Businesses, especially restaurants, that were shut down by government orders were left in an odd position — having to hire back workers when there was no work for them to do in order to trigger the loan forgiveness provision. Compounding that challenge, hiring workers back for some service jobs was at times hard because people could make more collecting unemployment insurance payments because of an extra $2,400 per month provided by the federal government.

The problem was bad enough that Congress eventually tweaked the PPP program to make it more beneficial to restaurants.

Finally, with so much free money floating around, it was almost inevitable that some loans would come under scrutiny. Such was the case with Honolulu’s Navatek. In September, the U.S. Justice Department arrested Navatek’s chief executive, Martin Kao, alleging he submitted at least two fraudulent PPP loan applications to get $12.8 million and funneled over $2 million of it into his personal accounts.

Despite such controversies, the mass of data from Hawaii indicates the program at least partly did what it was supposed to do: it provided cash, although in some cases minute sums, to companies dealing with the unprecedented shutdowns of entire metropolitan economies across the U.S.

“There were a few weeks when it was really scary for everybody,” said Joe Burns, associate state director for the SBA’s Small Business Development Center in Hawaii.

Despite an impression that money went only to big companies that didn’t need it, the PPP database shows a lot of small companies got loans. From small firms like Spirited Cocktail Catering in Kailua-Kona, which got $800, to Tattoos by Bryce on King Street, which got $1,200, to Ahh Massage in Lahaina, which got $15,000, numerous small outfits got some help.

“It was one of those things that worked,” said Peter Ho, president and chief executive of Bank of Hawaii, which with other local banks administered the loans for the SBA.

The next step for many businesses, Burns said, is to account for PPP expenditures so they don’t have to pay the loans back. That can be a challenge for small businesses with limited accounting expertise. Congress is considering blanket forgiveness for all loans of $150,000 or less, Burns said.

“That would help out people at the lower end,” he said, “especially small companies that may not have a CPA on staff.”

But first Congress will have to get over its months-long impasse.

Ty Gurney
Ty Gurney, the owner of his namesake surf school in Waikiki, says he sees hope as tourism starts to bounce back. Ty Gurney

In the meantime, Gurney sees hope, although things are still tough.

When Gurney first opened 15 years ago, in his small space on Lewers Street, his first big client was the Halekulani Hotel. Back then, the Halekulani made up about 70% of his business, he said.

Now, he has many more accounts, plus occasional walk-ins, so the luxe oceanfront property now brings in only about 30% of his business. Still, the Halekulani’s prolonged closure means a base of business is gone.

Previously, Gurney said, his school might do 60 classes a day, which was plenty of work for his staff of seven instructors, two desk clerks and a beach assistant. Now, he said, it’s been more like six classes over two weeks.

His landlord is working with him, Gurney says. He put away some profits every year into a nest egg, so he can keep paying his employees’ health insurance, he said.

He was able to pay his rent and utilities for a month with his PPP loan, which was a huge help, Gurney says.

With tourism reopening, he’s getting a couple of calls a day now and is optimistic.

“People are coming back,” he said.

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