Vice President Kamala Harris called on America’s Black business leaders to help spread the word that it is critical for Black Americans to take the Covid-19 vaccine to begin repairing the economic damage caused by the pandemic.

“If we’re going to build back up our economy, we’ve gotta get control of this,” Harris said of the virus Friday afternoon. “People have within their power the ability to save their lives, the lives of their family members, their community — but they’ve gotta get vaccinated.”

Harris’s remarks came during a virtual roundtable with Black business leaders across the country. She was joined by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen as they discussed how the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan could help Black small business owners recover from the financial devastation they’ve endured since the pandemic began in March.

About 41% of the nation’s Black-owned businesses permanently closed between February and April of 2020, according to multiple studies. An estimated 17% of White-owned businesses shut down over the same period, according to a University of California, Santa Cruz study released in June.

The Great Recession of 2008 had already widened inequality between Black and White America, and the current pandemic-fueled recession has made the gap even larger. “This pandemic has exacerbated all the problems that existed before,” Yellen said.

Much of the meeting was spent explaining how President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan will address specific Covid-19-related economic problems in the Black community.

The administration’s would set aside $400 billion for vaccine distribution, which Harris said is already being used to set up vaccine distributions centers in communities like her Oakland, California, hometown. The centers should be up and running by February 15, she added.

The vice president and Treasury secretary both lamented how little Paycheck Protection Program funding went to Black entrepreneurs in 2020 under President Trump. By contrast, Biden’s recovery plan would allocate $15 billion in “equitably distributed grants” to more than 1 million of the most-impacted small businesses, Yellen said. Those grants will be used to finance up to $175 billion in low-interest loans to those businesses, according to the White House’s website.

Yellen said that Biden plans to make better use of community depository financial institutions and minority depository institutions, which have better track records of lending to communities of color, to ensure they receive greater access to capital investment.”These are so important because they serve communities that [mainstream consumer banks] haven’t serviced as well,” she said.

One major challenge Black small business owners faced when applying for PPP last year was navigating the often lengthy application process.

This time, Harris said Biden’s team will have a team of trained “navigators” to help PPP applicants. “It is one of our highest priorities to fix the assistance piece of the PPP program,” she said.

Black Americans also make up a disproportionate number of low-wage essential workers and hospitality workers who have been laid off at higher rates than the general population.

Harris said Biden’s plan will also invest in US infrastructure projects to create business opportunities for Black construction companies as well as job opportunities for unemployed Black Americans.

Democrats in both chambers are moving to fast-track Biden’s Covid relief package without major support from Republicans, who have proposed a scaled-down stimulus proposal. The US Senate passed a budget resolution early Friday morning after Harris cast the tie-breaking vote.

US Black Chambers of Commerce President Ron Busby said the vice president’s remarks Friday sets the stage for accountability between the new administration and Black Americans, who played an outsized role in Biden’s electoral victory.

“In order for there to be a great America, there must be a Great Black America,” Busby said. “In order for there to be a great Black America, there must be great Black businesses.”

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a virtual roundtable discussion with Black business leaders on February 5. (Photo: from WhiteHouse.gov)

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