Ed’e Laws puts finishing touches on Eric Mathis’ haircut at the Hairshow Barbershop in Ridgeland, Miss., on Monday, May 18, 2020.

Thousands of small business owners in Mississippi can apply for grants up to $25,000 for expenses they incurred in the coronavirus pandemic starting at noon on Thursday.

“The pandemic was not just a public health emergency,” Gov. Tate Reeves said Wednesday, announcing the start of taking applications for the grants. “It plunged our country into the greatest job losses we’ve seen since the Great Depression.”

The grant program will go live Thursday, with applications and information available at the website backtobusinessms.org.

Meanwhile, the state continues to cut checks of $2,000 in coronavirus relief to small businesses and as of Wednesday had sent 10,797 checks totaling nearly $22 million.

The two programs are part of a $300 million small business relief act the Legislature passed in mid-May, funded by the $1.25 billion Mississippi will receive from the federal CARES Act passed by Congress.

Lawmakers earmarked up to $60 million for $2,000 checks for the estimated 29,000 small businesses closed by the governor’s stay-at-home orders. No application is required for this relief.

The Legislature allocated $240 million for the reimbursement grants of up to $25,000 for companies of 50 employees or less. The grants are for companies owned or controlled by Mississippians, and first priority will be given to those that have not received money from the federal coronavirus Paycheck Protection Program.

The grants are for expenses such as mortgage, rent, payroll, utilities and pandemic-related expenses. Under the CARES Act, the grant cannot cover lost revenue. The Mississippi Development Authority is handling the grant applications.

Spending of the state’s federal CARES Act money caused a brief power struggle between the Legislature and Reeves, with legislative leaders saying they control the state’s purse strings and Reeves saying he controls federal disaster funds in an emergency. The Legislature won out and passed the small business relief last month.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann has said Mississippi was one of the first states to allocate money to help small businesses through the CARES Act.

On Wednesday, House Speaker Philip Gunn said he was pleased to hear the grant applications were going live Thursday and that the $2,000 checks have been going out.

“I sent MDA a letter two weeks ago, urging that they act swiftly,” Gunn said. “Last week, I met with them and they said they were on the verge of having the portal ready … It appears they are on schedule with what they said they would do.”

Reeves said the next step state leaders need to take to help small businesses is to use about $500 million from CARES Act money to replenish the state’s unemployment trust fund, depleted by coronavirus unemployment that stands at about 15 percent currently. Not doing so would result in huge tax increases for Mississippi businesses, Reeves said.

Outside Reeves’ press conference on Wednesday in downtown Jackson, bar and nightclub owners and workers and musicians rallied, calling for Reeves to lift the 10 p.m. curfew on such businesses.

Melissa Kirksey, owner of BB’s Live in Brandon, was among the two dozen or so protesting. She said businesses relying on live entertainment have been devastated: “We would like to know why we can’t go back to work like everyone else.”

They were in luck. Reeves, who said he did not know who the protesters outside were, announced removal of the curfew on Wednesday.

Reeves also issued a new executive order calling for all state, local and municipal government employees to return to work by July 1. His order put a “sunset” on all administrative leave for government employees.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.