‘This couldn’t come at a better time’: Philly launches grant program for gyms, restaurants hit by pandemic

Debra Williams welcomes the new Philadelphia COVID-19 Restaurant and Gym Relief Program. She owns the SMART Fitness Personal Training and Exercise Studio in West Philadelphia (Philadelphia Tribune photo).

By Ayana Jones

PHILADELPHIA — After more than nine months of losing revenue, local fitness studio owner Debra Williams hopes to benefit from the new Philadelphia COVID-19 Restaurant and Gym Relief Program.

The $12 million grant program is designed to provide financial relief to small businesses that have been among the most adversely affected by the latest round of pandemic-related restrictions enacted in November 2020.

For Williams, the new initiative is timely. Even though gyms and fitness studios were recently allowed to open their doors, many of her clients have yet to return.

“This couldn’t come at a better time because I’m hurting and [not] getting revenue because people don’t want to come back and work out in a mask,” said Williams, who owns the West Philadelphia-based SMART Fitness Personal Training and Exercise Studio.

She said it’s hard for people to do high-impact cardio exercises or participate in spinning classes while wearing masks because they experience difficulty breathing.

For Williams, it has been challenging to keep her studio thriving as her clientele has gotten smaller.

“It’s hard,” she said. “It’s really hard.”

She is grateful that one of her clients sent her information about the new city program.

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“People are looking out for me,” Williams said. “I’m really blessed. These are clients and patrons that don’t want to see me close.”

The program’s grant awards are estimated to be up to $15,000 per business. The online application for the program will open at 11 a.m. Thursday via phila.gov/RGRP. Applications will be accepted until 11:59 p.m. Feb. 9. All applications will be reviewed after Feb. 9 and grants will be awarded based on eligibility and alignment with program priorities.

“As we’ve seen for nearly a year, the impact of COVID-19 is not just a public health crisis, but an economic crisis as well, and Philadelphia’s small businesses have been hit incredibly hard by the pandemic,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement.

“With this funding, we’ll be able to extend a lifeline to small businesses in the most impacted industries — including restaurants and gyms. I want to thank all the businesses that have gone above and beyond to do their part in stopping the spread of the virus.”

If approved for a grant, businesses may use the funds as needed to continue operating, including for rent or payroll. The funds can also be used for Investments in outdoor winterization, improvements in indoor ventilation, and other COVID-related indoor physical space expenses or personal protective equipment (PPE) purchases.

The new program was made possible through the latest allocation of funding for small business relief from a mid-year transfer of city general fund dollars in December 2020.

“We’re pleased that another economic relief program for small businesses impacted by COVID-19 is underway, and proud of City Council’s role in funding it,” said City Council President Darrell L. Clarke.

“Smaller restaurants and gyms are critically important businesses in our city. They employ residents and serve customers, and we want them to survive this pandemic and thrive again. This program is one more tool to help them through a long winter.” Priority will be given to businesses in high poverty areas or on neighborhood commercial corridors; are minority-, woman- or disabled-owned; provide jobs to Philadelphians; or suffered damage in 2020 due to civil unrest.

Ayana Jones is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.