HERMITAGE — In a room at the Royal Motel, Sam Mehta neatly folded a cover over one of his motel beds and talked about the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on his livelihood.

“We lost so much business last year,’’ said Mehta, owner of the motel. “It was really bad.’’

The motel's location — the intersection of South Hermitage Road and the Shenango Valley Freeway — is in one of the most heavily traveled corridors in Mercer County.

But even businesses in premier sites have been brutalized by the pandemic. Those in the hospitality trade, such as motels, bars, restaurants and distilleries, are among the hardest hit. In an effort to help, Pennsylvania created the $145 million Cover Hospitality Industry Recovery Program for those businesses.

Under the program, also known as CHIRP, each county was given a grant based on population. Each county's lead economic development agency is empowered to administer the funds. Mercer County received about $1.1 million and Lawrence County got $968,000.

A native of India, Mehta and his wife operate the motel which they've owned for nearly 10 years.

"This is a business that runs 24/7,'' he said. "We have to be here.''

When COVID-19 cases jumped last spring, Pennsylvania ordered non-essential businesses, including restaurants and bars, to close. That order had a ripple effect on hotels and other businesses that rely heavily on the travel and tourism industries.

As revenue dried up, Mehta was unable to pay his motel's monthly mortgage. But he was able to work out a payment plan with his lender, First National Bank of Pennsylvania.

“The bank really helped me out,’’ he said.

And that’s where most of his $10,000 grant is going — to pay off debt and outstanding bills.

CHIRP was designed for like the Royal Motel, said Rod Wilt, executive director of Penn-Northwest Development Corp., Mercer County's lead economic development agency.

"What's really great about this grant program is that it doesn't dictate when the money has to be spent,'' Wilt, said. "Businesses can use the money for things like paying off bills, buying new equipment or meeting their payroll.''

Penn-Northwest will continue to accept grant applications until June 15.

Lawrence County Economic Development Corp. – Lawrence County's lead economic development agency — is wrapping up its program, said Linda D. Nitch, the organization's economic development director.

Officials from both organizations expect to soon have final tallies of the number of grants and their amounts. Lawrence County Economic Development Corp. is closer to the end of its process and has more information.

Both agencies awarded grants to businesses based on a number of criteria, but the key factor was revenue loss due to the pandemic.

Nitch said some Lawrence County recipients were truly desperate — one business reported an 89% revenue loss from 2019 to 2020.

"For some of the businesses these grants were very critical for them – especially bars,'' she said. "We were really pleased to extend all of these dollars to assist businesses.''

Talbot Reiber, owner of Talbot’s Taproom and Terrace restaurant in Findley Township, landed a $30,000 grant for his business. Reiber is eyeing multiple possible uses for the funds.

"We've really expanded our outside presence,'' Reiber said. "And I know I want to do more.''

In an attempt to take advantage of less restrictive rules for outdoor dining, Reiber upped his restaurant's outdoor game by adding a retractable roof to his patio. He also constructed a walkway, leading to an airy garden, just off his patio.

'I'm all about comfort,'' Reiber said with a light laugh.

With most restrictions lifted, and the rest soon to be, Reiber said he's already seeing business improve.

"We're now getting reservations booked weeks in advance,'' Reiber said. "That says something.''

With the number of new COVID-19 cases tumbling, Mehta is getting more customers. And that delivers him a better comfort level.

"Last month things started to pick up,'' he said. "I'm starting to feel better about this.''

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