Content warning: This article makes references to suicide.
CARTHAGE, Miss.—John Mask leaned against his truck, squinting in the hot sun. It wasn’t the van he’d had in the good old days, he admitted. That was a remnant of the past, another casualty of the years gone by.
Had it really been years? When Mask talked about the early days of coronavirus, they didn’t seem that far off. The pain of it all seems weathered, less raw, but still eminently present just under the surface for him.
John Mask watched his life evaporate in the pandemic. Before COVID-19, he led a small business bearing his name, a construction services company out of Louisville, Miss. Mask and his team worked on residences across the region, installing ceramic showers, tiling roofs.
The pandemic brought it all crashing down. And when he reached out to participate in the programs intended to keep small businesses alive, he and his livelihood slipped through the cracks.
‘One Job at a Time’
John Mask started his construction company in 2017, building a reputation one job at a time.
“I mean, I’m 27 years old,” Mask told the Mississippi Free Press in an interview earlier this year. “I only had half an idea how to run a business. I started with some old used tools I’d accumulated from pawn shops, you know? Just buying little things here and there.”
By the start of 2020, Mask’s business had grown enough to employ a whole team. What started as a one-man operation had become a small community. “It’s not just responsible for my family, my income. It’s seven other men. It’s all their families, too,” Mask said.
Like so many others across the globe, the pandemic hit Mask Construction Services hard. A sudden freeze severed its ongoing contracts as the world ground to a halt. And in the months that followed, the basis for Mask’s entire business model dissipated in paranoia over the infectious disease.
“People weren’t calling,” he said simply. “Everybody was scared.” Mask understands the fear, even though it was catastrophic for his business. “I mean, I wouldn’t want three or four men coming into my house, working around me and my family and possibly exposing us.”
The months dragged on. “That was pretty much all of 2020,” Mask said. At times in the interviews, he still seemed stunned by how quickly it all fell apart—a small, thriving business swallowed up in a pandemic that seemed to stretch on without end.
The businessman saw a silver lining in the distance, however. Congress was pouring billions of dollars into programs to help businesses like his. A loan could help keep Mask Construction Services solvent, a grant or an advance would be even better.
He just had to get one.
COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan
John Mask was humble about the contracts his business completed, but a casual look through dormant social-media pages shows an impressive gallery of professional work: fences and furniture, stonework bathrooms, cabinets and kitchens.
Over the course of several months in late 2021 and early 2022, the Mississippi Free Press reached out to the Small Business Administration fo…
What he was not prepared for was involuntary enrollment into a pandemic-era administrative footrace with unclear rules and limited rewards.
The near-global shutdown led Congress to create the Paycheck Protection Program, part of the CARES Act, diverting billions to small businesses to cover payroll, mortgage, rent and utilities. The program offered a lifeline for businesses frozen out of their natural economic rhythm for up to two months.
Mask applied for the Paycheck Protection Program as soon as he could, but a nationwide surge of demand overwhelmed the program, in spite of its vast sum of available funds. Money ran out a month before the intended program’s end, and countless small businesses found themselves on the losing end of a coin flip—and out thousands of dollars in payroll funds for employees in need.
PPP funding nearly stretched to a trillion dollars, but the implementation and downstream effects of the program were often criticized and, to this day, still poorly understood. For Mask, losing the PPP funds was a punch to the gut, but participation in Renasant Bank’s Renasant Roots program brought a small ray of hope in the form of a $1,500 grant. While the money wasn’t enough to keep his business afloat by any means, Mask looks back on the program and the community bank’s assistance fondly.
“I met a lot of really, really good people,” Mask said of those who at least acknowledged the crisis his business faced.
Undeterred, Mask then applied for the program he hoped could save his business and home life: the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan, or EIDL. The program offered loans to small businesses and other valid institutions, covering up to six months of operating costs. The terms allowed up to a year of deferral on repayment and fixed, low-interest rates. For many, it represented one last opportunity to salvage a struggling business.
Moreover, Mask applied for the Targeted EIDL Advance and Supplemental Targeted Advance, emergency funds of up to $10,000 and $5,000, respectively, that would not need to be repaid. These funds, the SBA explains, are for “the hardest-hit small businesses and nonprofit organizations,” those who could display a massive loss of revenue in the early days of the pandemic. Mask Construction Services qualified.
For John Mask, the approval was the first sign that his business might be able to recover from the hard shock of the early pandemic—that in spite of the hardship, he might be able to weather the storm until some semblance of normalcy returned.
Two years later, he has yet to see a dime.
‘Better Than Nothing’
John Mask provided an exhaustive archive of his correspondence with the Small Business Administration to the Mississippi Free Press. Starting in mid-2020, it contained dozens of desperate emails from Mask seeking clarification on what information was necessary to receive the funds that the agency had already approved.
Again and again, the response he received came in the form of automated messages, repetitive reminders of the basic features of the EIDL program. The back-and-forth messages reference emails and phone calls assuring Mask that help was on the way.
Eventually, Mask received a glimpse of what had gone wrong. An SBA rep, he said, “reached out to me and explained (that) the account I originally had on the application was a closed account.” Somewhere between the initial approval and the delivery of the funds, Mask lost his primary bank account, which had been tied up with his nearly defunct business. He is certain that he attempted to update the information, but found later that the agency had retained his updated routing number and kept the old account number.
That mistake, whether it was an error on Mask’s part or introduced due to some element of an SBA system, appears to have permanently derailed the vital assistance he needed to save his business.
Bryn Bagwell, director of lending for Communities Unlimited, a certified development finance institute based in Arkansas, watched the tidal wave of demand crush the usual systems that small businesses depended upon as the pandemic unfolded.
“These were deadlines … that made everybody go crazy to be signed on. Because they were going to run out of money. And so you’ve got a huge volume of demand and a system that has not been completely developed yet,” Bagwell said, here referring to the PPP program.
Around Mask, the pandemic crushed small businesses in a vise, temporarily evaporating entire sectors of the economy. Data from the period show the subtraction of 3.3 million small business owners from the U.S. economy between February and April of 2020.
A powerful rebound followed, with some sectors recovering their numbers rapidly. But a replenishment of the head counts of small-business owners alone does not prove a full recovery of the companies themselves.
Pre-existing small businesses during the pandemic were by and large not equipped to deal with a global catastrophe on the scale of COVID-19. A survey of more than 5,000 small businesses from researchers at the University of Chicago and Harvard University found that “median businesses with more than $10,000 in monthly expenses had only about two weeks of cash on hand at the time of the survey.”
Mask found himself in a similar situation as the pandemic arrived, making it month to month but lacking the deep cash reserves to take an unplanned vacation with no definite end. Weeks unfolded into months, desperation sinking into despair. His financial situation and family life began to disintegrate. Through all of it, Mask found the opacity of the program ruinous to his mental health.
“I qualified for it,” he said. “I applied for it. Why won’t y’all help me? Why won’t you give me an answer? If they’d have just said, well, ‘screw you, you’re not getting paid.’ I mean, at least I could process that. I’d know. I’m not going to get this money. I’m not going to get any help. That’s better than, you know….”
He fumbled to describe his tense aggravation present after so long without answers.
“That’s better than nothing.”
‘The One Thing That Did Not Help’
The experience of waiting for help in a catastrophe was an isolating experience for Mask. But he was by no means alone in his experience with the SBA in general or the EIDL program in particular. William Patrick Butler, a Jackson-based photographer, shares his frustration.
Like Mask, Butler missed out on the earliest pandemic funds for small businesses in pandemic decline. “After they turned down my loan in 2020, I thought that was it,” Butler admitted. “I didn’t check back.”
His situation was not immediately dire, so like many others, Butler muddled through a long and confusing pandemic. He put the thought of federal support for his photography business out of his mind until March 2021 when the SBA emailed him, based on his previous applications, encouraging him to apply for the EIDL program.
The process sped along at first. “I went ahead and did it,” Butler told the Mississippi Free Press in an interview. “In June of 2021 I had been approved for the supplemental targeted advance.”
But he hit a roadblock in July 2021. Butler was using Chime, a mobile service associated with BancorpSouth Bank and Stride Bank. His provider had declined the money as possible fraud. “I was like, how is this fraud? The SBA is a legitimate federal government agency,” Butler said.
Butler scrambled to rectify the issue, updating his information to use a brick-and-mortar bank where he had a secondary account. But by then he was already caught in the same loop that Mask had found himself in.
“I called them at least once a week, to be proactive. At least once a week from August 2021, all I get back is (a message) that ‘we have your info, it’s in the pipeline, please be patient.” It had been a year and a half since Butler’s greatest need. But he kept waiting.
Blair Edwards, owner of The People’s Cup MicroRoastery in Starkville, Miss., was waiting, too. Edwards had the distinct misfortune of having expanded his business to a new location weeks before the global catastrophe of COVID-19. He inked the lease in January 2020.
“We were working on renovations when things started shutting down,” Edwards told the Mississippi Free Press in an interview. “So we decided the smart thing to do was not to pour all of our resources into renovating a building during a pandemic. We didn’t know how long it was going to last or what we would need.”
Countless sales and events flew out the window. Edwards applied for loan assistance as soon as it was a possibility. “I was never told why I was denied, and it took me until December 2020 to actually get denied,” he said. “And that was after a long process of reconsideration.”
In the middle of a long process of clarifying information with a loan officer, Edwards received an abrupt denial letter. “In the middle of all that, I get an email saying I’m denied. Nobody could tell me why, including the customer service line, nor my loan officer. The phone number was useless,” he said.
Edwards marveled at the complete lack of transparency, accountability or efficacy. “(For them) to be the one federal government organization for small businesses in the U.S.,” he said. “I thought this country ran on small businesses. That’s what they say,” he remarked, laughing bitterly.
He reflected on the bracing isolation of running his own business with such little support. “You know how hard it is in this economy to live, let alone try to start a business, let alone find the capital for that. The SBA was the one thing that did not help. At all,” he said.
‘I Am Done with the SBA’
Beyond Mississippians struggling to make sense of an impenetrable bureaucracy, dedicated forums of small business owners have cropped up online, trying to crowdsource answers from a program that seems designed to operate in secret. An EIDL subreddit contains the testimony of thousands of users all struggling in some way with the program. Day by day, stories of successes and agonizing delay trickle in.
“Silly me for thinking the government would help a first-generation American business that was opened with hard work and life savings and no debts,” one user wrote after months of posts on the subject.
“Like most everyone else, I am done with the SBA and the bullshit,” another wrote. “I can’t continue on like this, feeling like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. My business has collapsed, and I’m drowning in debt due to not having income to pay monthly bills. I can’t take (it) anymore and I feel like I’m at the end of my rope.”
Mask went through the same brutal cycle. He checked online catalogs of all the businesses that had received PPP funds, stunned at the breadth of the companies that the program had funded and how much they’d been given, all while his own company languished and his employees dispersed to find new opportunities for themselves.
“There’s a website that lists businesses that have received that funding,” Mask said. “I (could see) all these businesses in my hometown that received that money. You know? Everybody was getting it. Why? Why wasn’t I?”
The pandemic dragged on. Mask spiraled as he lost his business. He credits the collapse in part with the dissolution of his family, and as he lost hope, his thoughts turned to killing himself. “I’m going to be blunt, I’ve attempted suicide,” he said, and more than once. “We don’t talk about mental health here. And there’s not enough resources (for people on the edge),” he added.
Mask said stoic male culture had not equipped him to work through the deepening burden before it came to a head. “Men especially, you know, we’re told ‘keep it to yourself,’ and ‘keep your chin up,’” he said.
He doesn’t blame the SBA or the EIDL program for the chaos that entered his life. But that was his only resource—the program and the people he turned to in long years of turmoil. The silence, misdirection and confusion he received left him feeling all the more isolated.
‘Who’s holding these people accountable?’