The Small Business Administration’s Gaffes Are Now Her Job to Fix

Isabella Casillas Guzman, President Biden’s choice to run the Small Business Administration, inherited a portfolio of nearly $1 trillion in emergency aid and an agency plagued by controversy when she took over in March. She has been sprinting from crisis to crisis ever since.

Some new programs have been mired in delays and glitches, while the S.B.A.’s best-known pandemic relief effort, the Paycheck Protection Program, nearly ran out of money for its loans this month, confusing lenders and stranding millions of borrowers. Angry business owners have deluged the agency with criticism and complaints.

Now, it’s Ms. Guzman’s job to turn the ship around. “It’s the largest S.B.A. portfolio we’ve ever had, and clearly there’s going to need to be some changes in how we do business,” she said in a recent interview.

When the coronavirus crisis struck and the economy went into a free fall last year, Congress and the Trump administration pushed the Small Business Administration to the forefront, putting it in charge of huge sums of relief money and complicated new programs.

confusing, often-revised loan terms and several technical meltdowns — the program enjoyed some success. Millions of business owners credit it with helping them survive the pandemic and keep more workers employed.

Economists are skeptical about whether the program’s results justify its huge cost, but Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden both embraced the effort as a centerpiece of their economic rescue plans. As the pandemic stretched on and the economy plunged into a recession, the Paycheck Protection Program morphed into the largest business bailout in American history. More than eight million companies got forgivable loans, totaling $788 billion — nearly as much money as the government spent on its three rounds of direct payments to taxpayers.

Fraud is a major concern. Thousands of people took advantage of the rushed program’s minimal documentation requirements and sought illicit loans, according to prosecutors, to fund gambling sprees, Lamborghinis, luxury watches, an alpaca farm and a Medicare fraud scheme. The Justice Department has charged hundreds of people with stealing more than $440 million, and scores of federal investigations are active. (During her confirmation hearing, Ms. Guzman promised that she would “prioritize the reduction of fraud, waste and abuse.”)

There were other problems. Female and minority business owners were disproportionately left out of the relief effort. A last-minute attempt by Mr. Biden to make the program more generous for solo business owners came too late to help many of them. This month, a new emergency popped up: The program ran short of money and abruptly closed to most new applicants.

“There was no warning,” Toby Scammell, the chief executive of Womply, a company that helps borrowers get loans, said of the latest debacle. His company alone has more than 1.6 million applicants caught in limbo.

low-interest disaster loans of up to $500,000 and new grant funds, created by Congress, for two of the hardest-hit industries: the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant for live-event businesses and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. (The hotel industry is pushing for its own version.)

Each required the agency to create policies and technology systems from scratch. The venue program has been especially rocky. On its scheduled start day, in early April, the application system completely failed, leaving desperate applicants hitting refresh and relying on social media posts for information and updates.

“I turned to my associate director and said, ‘I figured something like this would happen,’” said Chris Zacher, the executive director of Levitt Pavilion, a nonprofit performing arts center in Denver. The Small Business Administration revived the system three weeks later and has received 12,200 applications, but it does not anticipate awarding grants until late May.

have turned into primal screams of pain. (“I SERIOUSLY CANNOT TAKE THIS WITH SBA ANY LONGER” is one of the milder replies.) She said she understood the urgency.

“It’s definitely unprecedented — across the board, across the nation — and we are seeing multiple disasters at the same time,” she said. “The agency is highly focused on just still responding to disaster and implementing this relief as quickly as possible.”

This is Ms. Guzman’s second tour at the Small Business Administration. When President Barack Obama picked Maria Contreras-Sweet in 2014 to take over the agency, Ms. Guzman went along as a senior adviser and deputy chief of staff. The women had met in the mid-1990s. Ms. Guzman, a California native with an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, was hired at 7Up/RC Bottling by Ms. Contreras-Sweet, an executive there.

“I was always impressed with her ability to handle jobs with steep learning curves — she has a quick grasp of complex concepts,” Ms. Contreras-Sweet said.

Ms. Guzman spent her first stint at the agency focused on traditional projects like its flagship lending program, which normally facilitates around $28 billion a year in loans. The time, the job is radically different.

community navigators” program, which will fund local organizations, including nonprofits and government groups, to work closely with businesses owned by people with disabilities or in underserved rural, minority and immigrant communities. It’s an expansion of a grass-roots effort by several nonprofits to get vulnerable businesses access to Paycheck Protection Program loans.

Ms. Guzman said she was bullish about that effort and other agency priorities, like expanding Black and other minority entrepreneurs’ access to capital — but first, like the clients it serves, the Small Business Administration has to weather the pandemic.

And to do that, it has to stop shooting itself in the foot.

The much-awaited second attempt at opening the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant fund was preceded by one final debacle: The agency announced — and then, less than a day before the date, abandoned — a plan to open the first-come-first-served fund on a Saturday. For those seeking aid that has not yet arrived, the incident felt like yet another kick in the teeth.

Ms. Guzman said she was aware of the need for her agency to overcome its limitations and rebuild its checkered reputation.

“This is a pivotal moment in time where we can leverage the interest in small business to really deliver a remarkable agency to them,” she said. “I value being the voice for the 30 million small and innovative start-ups around the country. What I always say to my staff is that I want these businesses to feel like the giants that they are in our economy.”

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N.Y.C. to Eliminate Remote Learning For Fall

New York City will no longer have a remote schooling option come fall, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Monday, in a major step toward fully reopening the nation’s largest school system.

This school year, most of the city’s roughly one million students — about 600,000 of them — stayed at home for classes. When the new school year starts on Sept. 13, all students and staff will be back in school buildings full-time, Mr. de Blasio said.

“This is going to be crucial for families,” Mr. de Blasio said at a news conference. “So many parents are relieved, I know.”

New York is one of the first big U.S. cities to remove the option of remote learning altogether for the coming school year. But widespread predictions that online classes would be a fixture for school districts may have been premature. Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey announced last week that the state would no longer have remote classes come fall, after similar announcements by leaders in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

in a statement, saying the city’s teachers union wanted “as many students back in school as safely as possible.”

Still, he acknowledged that “a small number of students with extreme medical challenges” may face difficulty returning to in-person learning with the pandemic still a threat and said that a remote option could be necessary for those children.

Mr. de Blasio said that the school system would have “plenty of protections” in place when the school year begins. But his announcement will no doubt alarm some parents who remain concerned about sending their children back into school buildings, even as the pandemic ebbs in the United States.

Recent interviews with city parents have shown that while many families are looking forward to resuming normal schooling, some are hesitant about returning to classrooms.

been most likely to keep their children learning from home over the past year.

During the mayor’s news conference, the city’s schools chancellor, Meisha Porter, said there would be “no Covid-related accommodations,” signaling that teachers and school staff will no longer be granted medical waivers to work from home.

The city’s school system is currently planning for masks to be required in school buildings, Ms. Porter said. Schools would also follow the C.D.C.’s social-distancing protocol, which currently recommends elementary school students remain at least 3 feet apart in classrooms. Both those policies could change by the fall.

New York, like districts across the country, has struggled to make remote learning successful. Online classes have been frustrating for many students, and even disastrous for some, including children with disabilities.

By one estimate, three million students across the United States, roughly the school-age population of Florida, stopped going to classes, virtual or in person, after the pandemic began. A disproportionate number of those disengaged students are low-income Black, Latino and Native American children who have struggled to keep up in classrooms that are partly or fully remote.

Mr. de Blasio, who has been criticized for not doing more to improve the quality of online education, has said that remote learning is inherently inferior.

It has also been extraordinarily complex for the city to run two parallel school systems, one in person and one online, with many students switching between the two every few days. So many students and teachers operating from home made it nearly impossible for some schools to offer normal schedules.

became eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Pfizer and BioNTech plan in September to submit requests for authorization of the vaccine in children ages 2 to 11.

“The data has been unbelievably clear,” Mr. de Blasio explained on Monday. “Vaccination has worked ahead of schedule; it’s had even more impact than we thought it would.”

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N.Y.C. will eliminate remote learning for the fall, in a major step toward reopening.

New York City will no longer have a remote schooling option come fall, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced during a television appearance on Monday, a major step toward fully reopening the nation’s largest school system.

This school year, most of the city’s roughly one million students — about 600,000 — stayed at home for classes. When the new school year starts on Sept. 13, all students and staff will be back in school buildings full-time, Mr. de Blasio said.

New York is one of the first big cities to remove the option of remote learning altogether for the coming school year. But widespread predictions that online classes would be a fixture for school districts may have been premature. Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey announced last week that the state would no longer have remote classes come fall, after similar announcements by leaders in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

New York City’s decision will make it much easier to restore the school system to a prepandemic state, since students and teachers will no longer be split between homes and school buildings.

been most likely to keep their children learning from home over the past year.

New York, like districts across the country, has struggled to make remote learning successful. Online classes have been frustrating for many students, and even disastrous for some, including children with disabilities.

By one estimate, three million students across the United States, roughly the school-age population of Florida, stopped going to classes, virtual or in person, after the pandemic began. A disproportionate number of those disengaged students are low-income Black, Latino and Native American children who have struggled to keep up in classrooms that are partly or fully remote.

Mr. de Blasio, who has been criticized for not doing more to improve the quality of online education, has said that remote learning is inherently inferior.

extraordinarily complex for the city to run two parallel school systems, one in person and one online, with many students switching between the two every few days. So many students and teachers operating from home made it nearly impossible for some schools to offer normal schedules.

For the past few months, Mr. de Blasio said he expected the city to keep some kind of remote learning option for the fall. But he and his aides changed their minds in recent weeks, officials said, as virus rates plummeted throughout the city and as children 12 and older became eligible for the Pfizer vaccine.

The mayor is expected to announce more details about the city’s school reopening plan at a news conference later on Monday.

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Disabled People Fear Being Left Behind as U.K. Culture Venues Reopen

LONDON — Before the pandemic hit Britain last year, Michelle Hedley could only go to her local theaters in the north of England if they happened to be doing a captioned performance.

That happened five times a year — at best, said Hedley, who is deaf.

But during the pandemic, suddenly, she could watch musicals all day and night if she wanted, as shuttered theaters worldwide put shows online, often with subtitles. “I started watching anything and everything simply because I could!” Hedley, 49, said in an email interview. “Even subject matters that bored me!”

“I viewed more theater than I had done (it felt like) in a lifetime,” she added.

22 percent of England’s population and have diverse requirements — such as wheelchair access, audio description or for “relaxed” performances where audiences are allowed to make noise — this moment is causing more mixed reactions. Some fear being forgotten, and that struggling venues will concentrate on producing in-person shows and forgo online offerings, or cut their in-person services for disabled people.

There is little evidence of that so far, and some venues say they will continue to include disabled people, but the real effect of venues’ reduced budgets won’t become clear for months.

“I will be forced to go back to being grateful for just five shows a year,” Hedley said. “It is very frustrating.”

Others are concerned, too. “I just have this sense of being left behind with people being so euphoric that they can do things in the flesh again,” Sonia Boué, an artist who is autistic, said in a telephone interview.

Before the pandemic, Boué, 58, would only visit museums if she was convinced a show would be worth the huge amount of energy the experience took. Getting the train from her home in Oxford to London could be overwhelming, she said, as could dealing with crowds in a packed museum. “I’ve been in situations when I’ve just wanted to throw myself down on a station platform and lose it,” she said.

the painter Tracey Emin and the photographer Jo Spence, she said, with both influencing her own art. “The whole experience was so rich and wonderful,” Boué said.

emergency funding from the government.

Some high-profile venues have said they will keep working to include disabled people as they reopen. Kwame Kwei-Armah, the artistic director of the Young Vic theater in London, told The Guardian in May he wanted to livestream at least two performances of all future shows, with viewers limited to about 500 per stream, mimicking the theater’s capacity. The Young Vic intends to guarantee some of those tickets for disabled people, a spokeswoman said in an email. On Friday, the Almeida, another London theater, said it would film and released digitally its next season’s shows “where possible” but gave no further details.

But for regional theaters that are coming off a year without ticket sales, streaming may not always be possible. “It’s a huge financial outlay, making films, so you really need to think about it from the start,” Amy Leach, the associate director of Leeds Playhouse, said in a phone interview. She hoped her theater would do that for future work, she said.

People’s concerns are not just about cuts to streaming. Jessica Thom, a performer and wheelchair user who’s made work about her Tourette’s syndrome, said in a telephone interview that she was worried that some venues may see online shows as an accessibility alternative to offering the relaxed performances she loved to go to, where people were free to move around or make noise. “The anxiety about being written out is real,” she said.

Graeae, Britain’s leading deaf and disabled-led theater company, as well as “The Unknown” for Leeds Playhouse (streaming until June 5).

She has been helped in such work by being able to have meetings and rehearsals virtually. “My experiences have been incredibly inclusive,” she said, “and I think a lot of us are having the same concerns about ‘Will we go back to old ways of working, when we’re told we need to be in the room?’”

like the Globe in London, have started offering in-person performances with audio description, Wood said. But she won’t be able to attend for months. “I worked out the other day I’d need to be guided by about 25 people to go from my home to a London theater,” she said. “I can’t tell if someone is wearing a mask or not, I can’t keep distance, so I don’t feel ready,” she added.

Many other disabled people feel similarly anxious about attending events in person, she said, having been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. She was worried theaters might cut back on services assuming there isn’t demand, even if the trend for that hasn’t happened yet.

Six British museums and theaters said in emails they intended to maintain provisions for disabled audiences, and not cut back. Andrew Miller, a campaigner who was the British government’s disability champion for arts and culture until this spring, said many institutions would be hard pressed to “wriggle” out of commitments even if they for some reason wanted to, as much funding in Britain comes with a requirement to expand access. But future funding cuts could make the situation “messy,” he said. “There is a genuine worry there’ll be significantly less investment,” he added.

Boué said she just hoped British theaters and museums kept disabled people in mind. It should be easier than ever to identify with disabled people, she said. When the first lockdown hit, “it was this jaw dropping moment when everyone felt completely immobilized and like they didn’t have the freedoms they’d always taken for granted,” she said.

For once, “it was like disability was really everyone’s problem,” she added.

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Australia prioritizes Olympic-bound athletes for vaccines.

Australia will fast-track vaccinations for athletes and support staff attending the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the government said on Tuesday.

The contingent of about 2,000 will be eligible to be vaccinated in the country’s second-highest priority group, at the same time as people age 70 and older, emergency workers and people with existing medical conditions and disabilities.

Amid the country’s sluggish vaccine rollout, the announcement prompted some backlash. Critics took issue with athletes receiving preferential treatment when some high-priority workers and other vulnerable people are still waiting for vaccines.

To date, Australia has vaccinated only about 7 percent of its population, largely because of problems with supply and poor coordination between state and federal governments and clinics. Earlier this month, the rollout was hobbled further when the government stopped recommending the AstraZeneca vaccine, the only vaccine that the country is manufacturing domestically, for people under 50. Two weeks ago, the government dropped its initial goal to vaccinate the entire population by the end of the year.

said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon, “our athletes deserve the opportunity to compete.” He added that vulnerable Australians remained an “absolute priority” for the vaccine rollout.

The chief executive of the Australian Olympic Committee, Matt Carroll, responded in a statement. “There will be hundreds of very grateful athletes, coaches and their families relieved to know that their hard work over five years has been worth it,” he said. “This added layer of assurance is what they were seeking.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Carroll told reporters that the committee had engaged a private contractor to conduct the vaccinations, meaning, “there’s no load on the public system whatsoever.”

The rollout to the athletes and support staff is expected to begin next week, he added, noting that they would receive either the Pfizer vaccine, for athletes under 50, or the AstraZeneca vaccine.

In other updates from around the world:

  • In the coming weeks, officials in Britain will announce a plan to allow people to travel to select countries without having to quarantine upon returning. The plan involves the use of a National Health Service app to verify that travelers have received a Covid-19 vaccination or recently tested negative, Grant Shapps, the country’s transport secretary, told Sky News. Civil society groups have raised concerns about vaccination passports, saying that they could invade privacy or disadvantage certain marginalized communities.

  • Andalusia, a region in southern Spain, said it would reopen travel across its eight provinces starting midnight on Wednesday, part of a national plan to ease restrictions. The vaccine rollout in Spain has accelerated in recent weeks, with 23 percent of the population having had at least one shot. The medical authorities in Seville, the capital of Andalusia, on Wednesday began offering the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

  • An aunt of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India died after contracting the coronavirus in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Narmadaben Modi, 80, was hospitalized after her condition deteriorated 10 days ago and she was taken to hospital, Prahlad Modi, Mr. Modi’s younger brother, told reporters. Gujarat is one of the Indian states where crematories are running overnight to handle the volume of dead bodies. Officials there are widely believed to be undercounting the actual number of deaths.

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Biden Takes On Sagging Safety Net With Plan to Fix Long-Term Care

President Biden’s $400 billion proposal to improve long-term care for older adults and those with disabilities was received as either a long overdue expansion of the social safety net or an example of misguided government overreach.

Republicans ridiculed including elder care in a program dedicated to infrastructure. Others derided it as a gift to the Service Employees International Union, which wants to organize care workers. It was also faulted for omitting child care.

For Ai-jen Poo, co-director of Caring Across Generations, a coalition of advocacy groups working to strengthen the long-term care system, it was an answer to years of hard work.

“Even though I have been fighting for this for years,” she said, “if you would have told me 10 years ago that the president of the United States would make a speech committing $400 billion to increase access to these services and strengthen this work force, I wouldn’t have believed it would happen.”

knocking millions of women out of the labor force — or deplete their resources until they qualify for Medicaid.

Whatever the limits of the Biden proposal, advocates for its main constituencies — those needing care, and those providing it — are solidly behind it. This would be, after all, the biggest expansion of long-term care support since the 1960s.

“The two big issues, waiting lists and work force, are interrelated,” said Nicole Jorwic, senior director of public policy at the Arc, which promotes the interests of people with disabilities. “We are confident we can turn this in a way that we get over the conflicts that have stopped progress in past.”

And yet the tussle over resources could reopen past conflicts. For instance, when President Barack Obama proposed extending the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to home care workers, which would cover them with minimum-wage and overtime rules, advocates for beneficiaries and their families objected because they feared that states with budget pressures would cut off services at 40 hours a week.

“We have a long road ahead of passing this into law and to implementation,” Haeyoung Yoon, senior policy director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said of the Biden proposal. Along the way, she said, supporters must stick together.

half of adults would need “a high level of personal assistance” at some point, typically for two years, at an average cost of $140,000. Today, some six million people need these sorts of services, a number the group expects to swell to 16 million in less than 50 years.

In 2019, the National Academy of Social Insurance published a report suggesting statewide insurance programs, paid for by a dedicated tax, to cover a bundle of services, from early child care to family leave and long-term care and support for older adults and the disabled.

This could be structured in a variety of ways. One option for seniors, a catastrophic insurance plan that would cover expenses up to $110 a day (in 2014 dollars) after a waiting period determined by the beneficiary’s income, could be funded by raising the Medicare tax one percentage point.

Mr. Biden’s plan doesn’t include much detail. Mr. Gleckman of the Urban Institute notes that it has grown vaguer since Mr. Biden proposed it on the campaign trail — perhaps because he realized the tensions it would raise. In any event, a deeper overhaul of the system may eventually be needed.

“This is a significant, historic investment,” Mr. Espinoza said. “But when you take into account the magnitude of the crisis in front of us, it’s clear that this is only a first step.”

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