The day Chris Costoso had feared so much finally came last month.
He was forced to shut down his photography business and turn over the keys to his storefront studio.
After nearly five years in business, that studio had become a part of him, he said.
In some cases, Costoso’s photos chronicle some couples’ lives together — from engagement, to wedding and eventually to family portraits.
“Handing over the last key to the [building] owner was just horrible,” Costoso said. “I didn’t think it would hurt so much, but as a small entrepreneur, I have put everything into my business and watched it flourish until something out of my control ended it so quickly.”
On Sunday, President Donald Trump signed a $900 billion pandemic relief package lauded to help people, but Costoso said for him, it’s “too little, too late.”
“This latest stimulus doesn’t even matter to me at this point. It’s whatever. I mean, I’m already shut down,” Costoso said. “I can only rely on myself to make something happen and to bring some sort of income in.”
The latest COVID-19 relief package would put $284 billion back into the Paycheck Protection Program, which offers forgivable loans to small businesses to keep their employees on payroll during the pandemic. Portions of that will be dedicated to minority-owned businesses and companies in low-income areas.
An additional $20 billion would also go toward small business grants.
The $2.2 trillion CARES Act, passed in March, created the PPP program; that first round of aid eventually reached $669 billion.
Costoso applied then but never received any aid. At this point, he feels both the federal and local government have let him down.
Businesses like Costoso’s that didn’t have strong relationships with the banks handling the PPP loans were left adrift, he believes. In Illinois, 12% of businesses and nonprofits getting loans from the PPP program accounted for 74% of the money — meaning bigger employers benefited the most.
Costoso said he did everything to keep his business afloat. He dropped the price his photo shoots from $650 to just $100 to generate some sort of income to pay his rent on his home and his storefront, but he still fell too far behind.
And with social media hyper-politicized during the presidential campaign, it was difficult to use those platforms to market his business online.
“People are not looking for a new photographer, and they are focused on the news with coronavirus, civil unrest, the elections and then those challenging the election results,” Costoso said. “So much of our advertising and marketing on Facebook was just getting ignored or washed away.”
Quentin Love, owner of Turkey Chop at 3506 W. Chicago Ave., also received no PPP assistance, or any other federal help targeting small businesses.
And even though revenue at his West Humboldt Park business has dropped by 75% in the last nine months compared to last year, Love has no intention of applying for the new round of PPP loans.
“It’s fine, because I don’t live my life waiting for someone to help me,” Love said. “I’m not counting on it. I’m just moving forward, looking at innovative ways to keep my business alive.”
That doesn’t mean Love isn’t committed to helping others in West Humboldt Park during the pandemic.
Love said he knows some businesses have had to shutter during this time but hesitates to blame the government.
“We are all trying to figure this thing out, and we all are suffering. … There isn’t a single person out there that hasn’t lost something,” Love said. “The government has been impacted, we have lost loved ones and people we care about. But really, what else can we do? This is bigger than how much money is available. I don’t live my life around that.”
One thing these last nine months has taught Love was how to be innovative. He said he has collaborated with urban farms to help cut costs. And when he couldn’t afford staff, he brought in volunteers so he could give them hands-on experience in the culinary field and teach them how his business works.
“I learned to evolve and really learned to be quicker on my feet,” Love said. “We are still in business, we are still alive, and we want to see everyone on the other side of this thing. Because even in loss, we are winning — as long as we are alive.”
Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.