WILLMAR — When the coronavirus pandemic hit Minnesota in mid-March 2020, there were many unknowns, including how state-mandated business shutdowns and other restrictions would affect business owners, employees and the economy as a whole. Even less was understood about the impact on immigrant-owned businesses.

"Latino businesses were really badly hit by the consequences of COVID-19, but we didn't know what exactly the magnitude of that damage was," said Rodolfo Gutierrez, executive director of Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research, a nonprofit, community-based research organization.

While the U.S. Census Bureau has been collecting data on the business impact of COVID-19, it was not specifically looking at the Latino population.

To gather that important data on the community it serves, the research organization Gutierrez leads partnered with the University of Minnesota Extension to complete a study on the impact COVID-19 on Latino owned businesses. Firms located in the seven-county metro area along with 17 Greater Minnesota counties, including Chippewa, Kandiyohi and Renville counties, were asked to participate in the survey.

"We thought it would be helpful information to drill in a bit more, to see if there were any nuances in how those businesses were being impacted versus a broad business community," said Jennifer Hawkins, a U of M researcher and community economic educator with Extension's Center for Community Vitality.

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While only 53 businesses responded of the 250 asked, the study did uncover some surprising information.

"Latino businesses were kind of split between those that were badly damaged and needed to close even, but so many others are navigating very well through the system and took advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program and loans," Gutierrez said.

Extension estimated Latino businesses lost about $2,712,350 because of the pandemic, and 50 percent of the responding businesses said the pandemic has impacted their ability to invest in their business. Twenty-two percent said that if the current economic conditions continued for another six months, they would have to close the business.

Based on the study findings, only 45 percent of the Latino businesses that responded to the survey took advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program, while overall 75 percent of Minnesota businesses did.

Ninety percent of the survey respondents said it was difficult finding information and many had never even heard of certain programs offered by the state or the federal government.

"The extent of the disparities and access were rather surprising," Hawkins said.

A language barrier was one of the main issues some Latino businesses owners faced when trying to apply for relief programs.

"They couldn't find assistance in Spanish," Gutierrez said, and when they finally did hear about available grants or loans, it would be late in the process, hurting their chances of being awarded any aid

. "It affected them a big deal."

This has shown that extra work needs to be done to make sure important business information is adequately available to the masses, including in different languages.

"To make sure that Latino firms, immigrant-owned firms have the information they need to apply for programs at the same rate as more mainstream firms," Hawkins said.

Many of the survey respondents also shared they would appreciate increased access to technical support and assistance, which would assist them in a more digital driven world. Survey respondents said that unfamiliarity with the internet and online applications was a challenge when trying to apply for relief.

Gutierrez said he hopes his organization might be able to help Latino businesses who are better equipped with technology to connect with fellow entrepreneurs who want to learn from them.

"We need to connect those businesses in a better way," Gutierrez said.

Both Gutierrez and Hawkins hope the study raises awareness about the special circumstances immigrant-owned businesses might face during times of hardship. Gutierrez said in some communities across the state, it is the immigrant entrepreneur who is keeping Main Street viable and assisting those business owners is an important economic development tool.

"It communicated how important it is to work with these businesses," Gutierrez said of the study. "They are putting a lot of effort in sustaining economic communities."

The completed study was also an opportunity to bring the University of Minnesota together with the Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research organization, which could bring about additional partnerships in the future.

"We are very interested in helping communities understand data and using data to support economic development," Hawkins said.

Gutierrez said it is always good to learn from each other and the partnership expanded the reach of the study and the information it uncovered.

"It has been really enjoyable having these partnerships," Gutierrez said.