A state grant program designed to boost consumer confidence and help businesses mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is expected to begin by July 31.

The Economic Resiliency Grant program will provide qualified North Dakota businesses with as much as $50,000 to make improvements and cover costs that help get customers back into the marketplace. Grants will be given on a first-come, first-served basis and will come from a pool of $69 million set aside from the state’s allotment of federal CARES Act money. The online application portal will go live either on or just before the end of the month at ndresponse.gov.

“We need to restore consumer confidence, and reinvigorate our economy, while ensuring the health and safety of customers and employees,” said Michelle Kommer, state commerce commissioner, in an online meeting held in conjunction with the Greater North Dakota Chamber on Thursday, July 9.

A June consumer confidence report, Kommer noted, shows a moderate increase from previous months, but is still well short of pre-pandemic levels. The grant program is a tool to help get consumers out and about before notions, such as staying home, shopping and dining out less frequently, become the new normal.

The ERG program will run through Dec. 29, and any remaining funds will be made available in a second and possibly third round of grants. The application can be backdated until March 27, to reimburse a business for qualified improvements it has already made. Grant funds need to be used 45 days from approval. Kommer urged business owners to keep detailed documentation of expenses related to ERG funds. The state, she said, will audit businesses to make sure grant money is spent according to proposals.

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-- Private companies, including sole proprietorships, nonprofits and corporations are eligible to apply. The businesses must have been solvent prior to March.

-- Businesses must have a permanent physical location in the state and be licensed either by the Secretary of State, or a tribal licensing authority.

-- Home-based businesses, such as day care providers and agricultural operations, are also eligible.

-- Companies whose employees work remotely and don’t have space for walk-in traffic or customer interaction are not eligible for the grant.

-- Government entities, such as universities and the K-12 public education system are not eligible, but a government-owned business, a grocery store, for example, may be eligible.

-- 501c6 entities are eligible provided they clearly show a purpose for the funds that is consistent with the spirit of the program.

How the grants may be used

Funding from the ERG program can be used to cover a broad array of investments, but must be used to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and help restore consumer confidence. Examples include:

-- Touchless payment or document signing systems

-- Automatic faucets, toilets and door kicks

-- Technology to make takeout or drive-thru orders possible.

-- Improvements that create distance between customers or employees, such as expanded outdoor dining areas and partitions between workers who can not be socially distanced

-- Items that directly control infection, such as personal protective equipment, UV sanitizers and temperature checking equipment

The grants may not be used for marketing costs related to spending ERG money or for advertising the improvements a business has made. Additionally, grants can not be used to cover payroll costs, refinance debt or for any expense not related to COVID-19 mitigation. Businesses that need such funding should apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan through their local lender. The PPP loan deadline has been extended to Aug. 8.