U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and former Governor and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt joined local business leaders and economists in an online panel discussion on Friday about how small business owners in Utah can support themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hundreds of business owners throughout the state, as well as a few from other states like Arizona and Montana, tuned in to the webinar titled “Navigating COVID-19: How to Save Your Business,” which was hosted by the University of Utah’s Marriner S. Eccles Institute for Economics and Quantitative Analysis.

Leavitt spoke about his experience as secretary of Health and Human Services putting together a federal pandemic plan in 2005 to prevent the spread of bird flu “that’s still the foundation of our nation’s response.”

As he put together the plan, Leavitt said it “became evident ... that we were not prepared yet as a country for this (a pandemic) to occur.”

“There’s something very unique about a pandemic,” Leavitt said. “In other emergencies that I was a part of, 9/11 or Katrina, for example, the federal government’s plan was to call the states and deploy assets from the states to the scene of the event. The dilemma of course in a pandemic is that it’s happening virtually everywhere at the same time. This is a uniquely local experience.”

Despite the massive financial impact that local businesses take by shutting down, Leavitt said doing so is the only way to prevent spread from growing out of control.

“The potential human loss and the social disruption that comes from a pandemic is so significant that this kind of bold action has to be taken,” he said. “And the truth is, until we have a vaccine and other medications, social distancing strategies, like the ones we’re practicing right now, are all we have.”

Leavitt called Romney a “crisis-seasoned executive who has a lot of wisdom” about how to manage an entity going through financial uncertainty. Romney served as the president of a 2002 Winter Olympics organizing committee and helped the committee overcome a bribery scandal and hold a financially successful Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Despite his experience with the 2002 Winter Olympics and as a business executive, Romney said he “never faced anywhere near the kind of challenge that each of you (business owners) faces in a setting with a pandemic.”

“So these are challenging times,” Romney said.

The Republican senator said business owners need to be in constant communication with their bankers, suppliers, employees and customers, adding that they should be honest and transparent about the state of their company.

“In this circumstance, the key is to establish and maintain credibility,” Romney said.

President and CEO of World Trade Center Utah Miles Hansen said there are multiple elements of the $2 trillion federal stimulus package “that every business in the state of Utah needs to be aware of and engaging on right now.”

Hansen talked about the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which he described as being “designed to keep people on the payroll.”

Through the program, businesses with less than 500 employees are eligible for loans that would be forgiven “if all employees are kept on the payroll for eight weeks and the money is used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest or utilities,” according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Hansen said business owners should also apply for federal Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) for up to $2 million, which now include a $10,000 advance for businesses impacted by the pandemic.

As far as local resources, Hansen said businesses with fewer than 50 employees should apply for the Utah Leads Together Small Business Bridge Loan program through the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

Eligible businesses can apply for loans ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 with zero interest for up to a 60-month period, according to the state economic development office.

Taylor Randall, dean of the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah, said businesses will likely experience widespread disruption to their supply chains as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Supply chains absolutely hate disruption,” Randall said. “And this may be one of the largest disruptions we will see globally in supply chains.”

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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