BY GIFF JOHNSON
Marshall Islands Correspondent

Marshall Islands President David Kabua, center, and members of his cabinet joined with representatives of 19 businesses for a Covid-19 relief check handover ceremony in August. More than $500,000 was distributed to the various businesses.

Photo by Eve Burns

MAJURO, Marshall Islands — A big boost to local businesses in the Marshall Islands was provided by the national government in mid-August when it issued more than $500,000 in COVID-19 relief funds to 19 businesses. This followed payments of about $130,000 issued to four businesses in July.

The government set aside $6 million for COVID relief aid to help local businesses, but has found difficulty in issuing funding as many local businesses did not complete applications or provide financial details requested by the government’s National Disaster Committee, which is overseeing the program.

Many of the companies have not submitted all requested documents but the government cannot wait for this to happen, said Reginald White, who chairs the National Disaster Committee’s Economic Impact Assessment Committee and is involved in evaluating applications lodged by local business for coronavirus relief aid.

“We want to push the relief funds out to the businesses that have experienced an impact,” he said. The government issued a lump sum based on the business size and tax information evaluations for the companies that have not yet provided all requested documentation. White said he hoped the issuance of the lump sum payments — which average $26,315 — will provide an incentive to the companies to get the requested documents in for review that could lead to a higher amount of relief funding.

“Marshallese are slow, even when it comes to money,” White said. “Things are rolling.”

President David Kabua and some of his cabinet members presented the business checks at an Aug. 7 ceremony at the President’s Office.

The businesses that received Covid-19 relief funding ranged from hotels, handicraft shops and construction companies to restaurants, beauty salons and an aquaculture export company.

Those receiving relief funds included Hotel Robert Reimers, the Amata Kabua International Airport Cafe, Happy Hands Handicrafts, Beran Resort on Ailinglaplap, the Marshall Islands Resort Hotel and Restaurant, Medi-Source Pacific, Pacific Unique Travel, MISCo Handicraft Division, Pineep Store, DAR Coffee Corner, Anil Jitak Likatu Bar, Anil Sewing Shop, Anil Salon, Carrie and Cayla, Atoll Marine Aquatic, Barkan Store, Kushina Store (Ebeye), H&S Store and JOA’s Co.

Of 80 companies that picked up applications, only 30 had returned them as of mid-August and the majority of these did not submit complete information. “We can’t pay on guess work,” White said. This is why the government has been using gross revenue tax filings to assess impact, looking at pre-COVID-19 tax filings and comparing them with current ones. “In the absence of documents, we’re providing a flat rate (to those impacted),” he said.

In the meantime, government attempts to access U.S. CARES Act unemployment assistance have to date proved elusive. The U.S. Department of Labor requires each jurisdiction to submit a spending proposal and the Marshall Islands had been unable to gain U.S. approval after submitting three revised draft plans by mid-August.

The neighboring Federated States of Micronesia successfully gained $37 million in unemployment aid and began issuing payments in early July.

The government is also funding “food baskets,” fishing equipment and farming tools for people living in remote outer islands as part of COVID-19 assistance.

The Marshall Islands continues COVID-free. Since March 8, Marshall Islands authorities have shut off inbound travel to the nation. The latest travel advisory banning inbound arrivals is scheduled to end Sept. 5, but is expected to be extended for at least another 30 days. mbj