When Vivian and Juan Acevedo opened Lowell’s Panela restaurant in 2019, it was in many ways the realization of a dream and the culmination of Vivian’s culinary career.

They soon faced enormous challenges: for restaurants across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic upended business, bringing mandatory in-person closures and a sharp change in consumer behaviors.

Panela’s owners applied for and received $60,000 in support through the Baker administration and Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation’s COVID-19 small business relief grant program. That boost, Juan Acevedo recalled on Thursday, “helped us when we needed help the most.”

“Honestly, it was the perfect time,” Acevedo said while hosting Baker administration officials at a press conference in the Lowell restaurant. “It definitely helped us keep our staff hired and, most importantly, keep our doors open. Without the help from the state, we wouldn’t have been able to stay open through the last few months.”

Since October, the administration has distributed $687 million to more than 15,000 local employers such as Panela through its COVID-19 business relief effort. Most of the funds flowed from the federal government.

Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday announced officials will award a final $5 million round of grants.

The program was targeted at underrepresented groups — minority-owned businesses received 43 percent of grants, while women-owned businesses received 46 percent — and at sectors hit hardest by the pandemic.

About a third of the funding distributed, $224 million, went to restaurants and bars, while the second-largest total of $107 million went to industries categorized as “other,” according to Baker administration data.

The program directed $91 million to personal services establishments such as hair and nail salons, $62 million to independent retailers, $35 million to businesses in health care and $24 million to businesses in education, $21 million to gyms and fitness centers, $20 million to event support companies, nearly $18 million to professional services such as accounting businesses, $14.8 million to construction, $13.9 million to manufacturing and $10.8 million to transportation.

Several other industries, including lodging, media and indoor recreation, each split less than $10 million in grants through the program, the administration said.

Noting the second surge underway in Massachusetts last fall when the administration launched the program, Baker called it “one of the most important initiatives we pursued.”

Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy said the grants administered by the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation “literally have saved thousands of companies here in the commonwealth.”

The program’s success at reaching people of color in particular drew praise from Amplify Latinx Executive Director Rosario Ubiera-Minaya, who said the intentional focus helped those disproportionately affected by the pandemic navigate dire stretches during the pandemic.

“This doesn’t happen by accident,” Ubiera-Minaya said. “The success of this program happens when you make a concerted effort and you are intentional about directing these funds specifically to support the needs of our minority communities.”

The grant program is now at its end. With nearly half of the state‘s adults already fully vaccinated and an end to business restrictions on the horizon, Baker said he does not anticipate significant additional funding to become available through this channel.

“There’s probably always going to be some trickle going on with respect to the resources here, but I think for all intents and purposes, the big bowl of this program has been distributed at this point in time,” he said.

Baker commended the Legislature’s passage last session of a $626 million economic development bill and said Beacon Hill has work ahead of it to put state resources and federal stimulus to work.

The state‘s economic outlook has improved in recent months alongside the vaccination campaign, but Massachusetts still remains more than 272,000 jobs below the March 2020 statewide employment level. Major questions remain about how lasting some of the pandemic’s changes will become.

A “future-of-work” study the Baker administration hired consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to produce “should be done at some point in the next four to five weeks,” Baker said on Thursday.

“That’s going to have consequences for childcare, transportation, downtown development, and especially how people think about streetscapes generally if, in fact, we’re going to see significant reduction in so-called commuter traffic,” Baker said.

(Copyright (c) 2021 State House News Service.

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