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Hundreds of public companies keep coronavirus loans from federal program

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Hundreds of publicly traded companies appear to be keeping government-backed loans meant to help small businesses weather the coronavirus crisis.

Only 68 of the 424 public firms that disclosed receiving $1.3 billion in loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program had pledged to return them as of early Monday morning, according to regulatory filings compiled by data-analysis company FactSquared.

That suggests 356, or roughly 84 percent, of those companies are holding onto the money amid the Trump administration’s pledge to crack down on abuse of the $659 billion program. Officials gave firms until May 18 to repay loans without facing further scrutiny.

Some 76 of those companies had enough cash and cash equivalents on hand to cover operating expenses until at least June, a Reuters analysis found.

The firms keeping loans include upscale restaurant operator ONE Group Hospitality, which got $18.3 million from the pool of money meant to help small businesses cover payroll and overhead costs, FactSquared’s database showed. There’s also Hallador Energy, a coal firm that got $10 million, and high-end hotel company Sotherly Hotels, which got nearly $10.4 million, according to the data.

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Those are likely to get a closer look from the US Small Business Administration, which has pledged to review all Paycheck Protection Program loans larger than $2 million to ensure the rules were followed. The feds will try to get outstanding loan balances back from companies that they find didn’t actually need the funds to keep operating amid the pandemic, according to officials.

But the SBA won’t scrutinize firms that borrowed less than $2 million because they’re “generally less likely to have had access to adequate sources of liquidity in the current economic environment,” officials have said.

That indicates many public companies like Wilhelmina International — the big-name modeling agency that snagged just under $2 million in loans — will effectively get a free pass.

The Paycheck Protection Program drew fire for initially helping big companies such as Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris Steak House while struggling small businesses were left out in the cold after its initial $349 billion budget ran out in two weeks. Those two restaurant chains have since returned their loans.

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But the second round of $310 billion has lasted longer, with $135.7 billion still available as of May 19, according to the SBA. The average loan size as of last week was $118,000, though the majority of those distributed have been for $50,000 or less, the agency said.

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