MEDFORD – As a weekly unemployment report showed the most New Jerseyans filing new claims for benefits since January, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill into law Thursday providing $25 million in federal COVID-19 relief aid to small businesses.

The bill is part of a five-bill package totaling $100 million, approved as the state’s economy struggles to recover a year after economic shutdowns were imposed in the uncertain first days of the pandemic.

The unemployment report shows nearly 743,000 state residents received jobless benefits in the week ending March 13. Over 22,000 new claims were filed last week for regular unemployment or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for self-employed people, the most since the week ending Jan. 16.

“We know that these funds are needed now by our small businesses, and we know that more is needed beyond this to ensure that our Main Streets remain healthy and viable as we look to recovery from the pandemic,” Murphy said.

Murphy signed the bill outside Fond Memories, a boutique store in a Burlington County shopping plaza that survived the pandemic in part through two grants received from the state Economic Development Authority.

More than a quarter-billion dollars in assistance, mostly from federal aid, has been distributed to 55,000 New Jersey businesses by the state during the pandemic. That includes $137 million in 35,000 grants to 29,000 microbusinesses with five workers or fewer.

“These have been truly business-saving and dream-saving partnerships,” Murphy said.

“This isn’t over yet. We know that there’s more recovery to come and more funds needed,” said Tim Sullivan, the EDA’s chief executive officer.

The grants will be awarded to microbusinesses that produce goods or supply services. Sullivan said specific rules for the new program will be proposed at the EDA’s April 14 board meeting, with applications likely to be accepted during the second half of April.

“And then we’ll get this money out the door – judiciously, thoughtfully and carefully, but quickly as well,” Sullivan said.

Despite the past and future aid, including potentially $200 million in Murphy’s proposed budget, small businesses are closing at a record pace. It has been estimated that 30% of small business have closed permanently in the state.

Results issued Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau from its latest Small Business Pulse Survey show 78% of New Jersey respondents say their business has been negatively impacted by the pandemic, with 3.5% of them temporarily or permanently closing in the last week alone, 8% cutting their staff and 13% cutting back on workers’ hours.

Ten percent of respondents said they don’t expect the business will ever return to its normal level of operations from before the pandemic, and 46% say it will take more than six months. Only Hawaii and New York were slightly more pessimistic about their prospects.

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“When we’re providing help for our small businesses and our small business owners, this is not an act of charity. This is not like just, you know: Here you go, we know you’re in tough times,” said U.S. Rep. Andy Kim, D-Bordentown. “These are our small businesses. This is such a vital part to our communities.”

“New Jersey never fully recovered from the Great Recession, and a lot of that was due to the limited relief residents, businesses and organizations received,” said state Sen. Dawn Addiego, D-Burlington. “Microbusinesses shouldn’t have to permanently close their doors because of the pandemic.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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