By Christina Lee Knauss
Phones started ringing and messages started flying at many financial institutions around South Carolina when the second round of funding for the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program loans launched Jan. 11.
Representatives from banks around the state say while there is not the overwhelming level of panic many business owners felt in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of people are still in need of money to keep their businesses going.
Some sectors of the economy have recovered to a point, they say, but others — particularly tourism — are still suffering from a lack of customers and the ongoing uncertainty of when the pandemic might ease enough to get the economy back to full strength.
To help alleviate long wait times and a backlog of applications, the Small Business Administration is working to streamline the application process for lenders and applicants. As of Jan. 26, anomalies which could slow down the process were found in about 4.7% of data submitted by lenders nationwide, according to the administration. By late January, the SBA had already approved more than 400,000 loans for about $35 billion.
The workload has gone up dramatically in the past few weeks at Columbia’s Optus Bank, according to President and CEO Dominik Mjartan. During the first round of PPP funding in 2020, the bank received 700 applications and was able to fund 511 loans. By Feb. 3, less than a month into the second round, the bank already had 600 applications in the pipeline, many of them from first-round recipients still needing assistance.
“We are overwhelmed with demand,” Mjartan said. “We are a bank of 25 employees, and we’ve hired 10 people in the past month just to handle the influx of requests for PPP loans. It’s taking a lot of effort but we want to make this process work for those we serve.”
Optus prioritizes investment in low-income communities and offers loans to minority- and women-owned businesses, precisely the communities that need the bank’s PPP funds the most, Mjartan said.
“Many of the businesses that we have been able to serve through the PPP program have been those who are also the most vulnerable — black- and women-owned small businesses that also have employees who are most likely to be on the front lines during the pandemic,” Mjartan said. “Part of our mission as a bank has been to make sure we have a thriving, vibrant economy across all communities, and it happened that this pandemic has really highlighted the disparities between different communities when it comes to business success.”
In the first round of lending in 2020, Optus Bank made 511 loans for a total of $40.5 million, with the median loan amount of $22,000. Mjartan said one business only needed $500, while one of the largest loans for $1.8 million went to an area nonprofit.
While the bulk of Optus’ PPP funding went to small businesses, Mjartan said the bank also provided funding to…