BOSTON — The Baker administration is touting grants to businesses struggling amid the economic fallout of the pandemic, but business leaders say more relief is needed.

On Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker visited a restaurant in Boston's North End and urged business owners to apply for the latest round round of pandemic relief.

"We know how much this pandemic has impacted small business," Baker said. "We really do hope that people who qualify will have a chance to apply to receive some of the support that this program can make available."

The grants are from a new $668 million fund. Small businesses that qualify can receive up to $75,000 to cover expenses for several months. Friday is the deadline to apply.

The state has already doled out nearly $200 million to more than 4,000 businesses, Baker said.

The new package comes in response to the Baker administration's decision to tighten limits on capacity for most businesses in response to a surge of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations that are stressing the state's health care system.

Baker previously rolled back reopening plans to Phase 3, Step 1, which required some entertainment venues to close and tightened other restrictions.

Baker administration officials say the money is available to a range of businesses including restaurants, bars, gyms and fitness centers. It can be used for anything from making payroll and hiring staff to debt payments.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said the grants can help bring certainty to businesses that otherwise face "very difficult and uncertain times."

On Wednesday, there were 5,278 new coronavirus cases and 86 more deaths reported in Massachusetts. More than 2,220 people are hospitalized with the disease.

Even as state lawmakers look to provide relief, business leaders warn of a "perfect storm" of higher labor costs that could worsen the situation.

Small businesses face an average 8% increase in health insurance premiums this year. A multi-billion-dollar deficit in the state’s unemployment insurance fund could drive up rates that employers are required to pay by 60%.

Meanwhile, retail and restaurant sales are down 50% from a year ago, as a result of government closures and ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.

A $900 billion stimulus package signed by President Donald Trump includes an extension of the Paycheck Protection Program. It provides another $284 billion in forgivable, federally backed loans for qualifying small businesses.

Joe Bevilacqua, president of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce, said the state and federal aid is helping keep businesses afloat, but more is needed.

"We're concerned that many businesses won't survive this winter," he said. "The relief is helpful, but there's always more that can be done."

For more about the grant funding visit: www.empoweringsmallbusiness.org.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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