BILLINGS — The number of unemployed Yellowstone County residents has been cut in half to 6,600 from its peak in April, Big Sky Economic Development Executive Director Steve Arveschoug told the Billings City Council Monday night.
Earlier in the year, about 11,500 filed unemployment claims after state and local governments implemented restrictions with the aim to slow the spread of COVID-19. Bars, restaurants, gyms and theaters were some of the businesses that were forced to close while the government encouraged their customers to stay home.
Big Sky Economic Development also gathered data on the sectors of the economy most impacted by the virus. Based on unemployment claims, Arveschoug said leisure, self-employed small businesses, and trade and transportation were most affected.
Arveschoug brought numbers of how many businesses had received federal loans through the Paycheck Protection Program ran by the Small Business Administration.
Arveschoug said that about 3,100 Yellowstone County businesses applied for federal financial assistance.
Of those businesses, about 2,600 received funding less than $150,000 for a total of around $94 million, Arveschoug said. And about 400 received amounts somewhere in between $150,000 and $10 million, he said.
The Big Sky Economic Development Authority has been leading Yellowstone County's economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Arveschoug said the economic response and recovery team includes about 50 people made up of local business leaders who meet once a week to discuss the recovery.
Arveschoug said the group works in sub-committees toward four goals: response coordination and communication, economic impact assessment, strategic restart partnership and recovery planning.
Arveschoug said the group has been in contact with the state's Coronavirus Relief Fund Task Force.
Arveschoug said they made recommendations on how to speed up the distribution from the fund originally worth $1.25 billion. Arveschoug said about $5.5 million of the fund has been given out thus far.
"We were making recommendations on how to speed up the pace of deployment. Ways that the governor’s team could look at getting more information out. And also some sensitivity to those businesses who’ve been significantly impacted, like our hotel, accommodations, events, et cetera. We gave the governor’s team some insight on how best to respond to that," Arveschoug said.
Arveschoug said he asked the state's Coronavirus Relief Fund Task Force to offer some sort of incentive to get people back to work, ideally making more than they would on unemployment with the federal government's $600 bonus for pandemic relief.
“In the meantime, we’ve asked the Coronavirus Task Force fund managers to look at incentivizing re-employment, utilizing some resources. Instead of paying a bonus just to stay home each week, that we look at reversing that and commit resources that an employer could use in incentivizing them to come back to work," Arveschoug said.
The economic response and recovery group has also been behind the Open and Safe campaign to help local businesses understand COVID-19 restrictions.
Last week, county health officials urged the public to wear masks and help slow the spread of COVID-19, while the state has seen a spike in cases in recent days.
Arveschoug encouraged people to wear masks as recommended because the local economy would see more turmoil if businesses were forced again to close due to another COVID-19 spike.
“Boy the last thing that I’m hearing of want from our business community is to go backwards. We absolutely can’t afford to do that. Whatever we can do to be encouraging those practices, including wearing a mask is so vital to our economic response and recovery. If we go backwards, we’re rethinking our whole plan and strategy in terms of how we address our economic recovery," Arveschoug said.