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A sign visible inside a Starbucks' closed cafe area in Glendale on April 19, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

The portal to forgiveness has opened, and it’s looking very empty.

Many banks that provided federal coronavirus relief loans to small businesses in Colorado are still waiting before jumping into the next phase of the Paycheck Protection Program, which stopped accepting applications on Saturday. The portal opened to lenders on Monday, even as more updates continued to be released this week.


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“Our goal is to get the forgiveness portal for applications up and running as soon as possible,” said Chandra Brin, a spokeswoman for Lakewood-based FirstBank, the state’s largest PPP loan lender. “But we anticipate accepting forgiveness applications within the coming weeks.”

By midnight on Saturday, approximately 109,170 small businesses in Colorado had been approved for $10.4 billion in federal PPP loans. That’s about 4,700 more businesses that jumped in after the program closed on June 30 and then was extended by Congress for six weeks. Nationwide, the number grew to 5.2 million loans valued at $525 billion.

The PPP program, popular at first because it offered 100% loan forgiveness if the money was spent on payroll and certain other expenses, still had more than $100 billion available for loans at the end. 

Overseen by the U.S. Treasury and the Small Business Administration, the PPP program was plagued by its simplicity to offer federal relief fast. Updates to the rules to provide more oversight about who qualified caused businesses to sour on the loans as changes caused confusion. The ongoing economic uncertainty during the pandemic also left many businesses wondering if they could now meet the loan terms and receive forgiveness. 

Last month, the SBA shared a list of companies that received loans from $1 to $10 million. Some data was inaccurate. At least two Colorado companies were listed as being approved for loans of $5 million to $10 million but when contacted said they only received about $100,000 (the SBA now has a form to correct information about public loans). 

Cases of fraud are also starting to crop up. Christopher Chavez,  a spokesman for SBA’s Region VIII Office in Denver, said suspicious activity in Colorado can be reported to

But millions of small businesses did benefit from the program, including The Colorado Sun. Most of the Colorado companies that received a loan were small businesses just trying to survive. The average loan size in Colorado was $95,287.43. 

“I will tell you that I was working with clients on Friday night and Saturday morning to get the last-minute PPP loans in Colorado through the system,” Chavez said in an email. “So we still had some interest in the final hours.”

Businesses vs. employees 

Two key changes passed by Congress on June 3 provided more leeway for businesses to gain forgiveness and keep the business solvent longer. New terms let borrowers apply just 60% of the loan to payroll instead of 75%, and take 24 weeks to use up the funds instead of eight.

But changes made with the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act allowed the program to morph away from its original intent to keep as many workers paid and off unemployment. The confusion that ensued appeared to push the number of new unemployment claims in the state higher that week.

“When I talked with business owners, there was this disconnect of, ‘Why would I pay people to stay at home?’ They just didn’t quite understand how that would work or why that would be feasible,” said Sarah Mercer, an attorney and lobbyist at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck who works with clients on PPP loans.

“(The changes) put business interests first and tried to reconcile that disconnect that business owners had,” she said. “I think that is really reflective of the American work ethic in this country: You don’t get paid just to sit on your couch, and that’s not true in other countries. In other countries, the government benefit went directly to people to stay home.”

MORE: 5 charts showing where federal coronavirus loans went in Colorado, which industries benefited the most

The updated law also reflected what was happening in Colorado and the nation, said Greg Anton, a partner in the Denver office of accounting and advisory firm BDO USA.

“It was modified to reflect the reality of what businesses encountered,” Anton said. “The reality is there were businesses that were shut down and couldn’t maintain their workforce.”

Keeping workers on payroll was especially tough for restaurants, hotels and other businesses that were forced to minimize operations to meet state mandates for social distancing and to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Many restaurants closed in March, and some of those have not reopened. 

Colorado saw 2,869 businesses close temporarily or permanently between March 1 and July 10, according to an analysis by crowd-sourced business reviews site Yelp users marked 1,550 of them permanently closed.

Calculating forgiveness

PPP forgiveness is based on a calculation that takes into account the average number of employees and wages before the pandemic and during the covered period of the loan. If the number of workers declines, the amount of forgiveness drops as well. Depending on when the loan was issued, businesses that don’t receive full forgiveness have two to five years to pay back the loans at a 1% interest rate. 

As long as borrowers kept good records of expenses to prove how the loan was used, most loans are expected to be forgiven. 

“That said, loans of $150,000 and less will be presumed to be eligible (for forgiveness) and used properly,” Mercer said. “And this is really just a matter of resources because, frankly, the government has limited resources to put toward review of their loans, and they decided they’re going to prioritize loans that are over $2 million.”

Early in the process, the SBA and Treasury Department said loans of $2 million or more will be audited. This guidance came out after large, publicly traded companies acknowledged the receipt of multiple $10 million loans. Part of qualifying for forgiveness is that a business must certify that it needed the loan due to the negative economic impact of the coronavirus. Public companies with substantial market value were deemed “unlikely” to certify in good faith.

Phillip Austin, who is also with BDO USA, said he’s aware of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement division making informal inquiries with public companies that received PPP loans. 

“And they’ve asked those companies to provide evidential matter to the SEC around the program, their participation, the accounting and the disclosure results,” he said. “This is another form of regulative scrutiny occurring on public companies.”

But even smaller amounts could be subject to more scrutiny, Mercer added. Because these are federal SBA loans, the government has the right to audit or review eligibility of the loan for up to six years.

“Loans don’t come with no strings,” she said. “There is always that right to audit so every borrower needs to make sure that they’ve kept their records and that they keep a file on their loan for six years just in case, no matter the size.”

According to the SBA, once an applicant submits an application for forgiveness, the lender has 60 days to verify and review the information. Lenders then submit it to the SBA, which has 90 days to decide whether to forgive it. On Wednesday, the SBA released a new rule allowing for appeals if the loan isn’t forgiven. 

Anton shared a free forgiveness calculator at to help borrowers fill out their forgiveness application and estimate how much will be forgiven. The tool was created by the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, of which he’s a past chairman.

“The tool is going to save you time. It identifies the documentation requirements and the submission requirements,” he said. “And it’s been vetted with the Treasury and the SBA. It’s a really valuable tool to be utilized by both lenders and individuals that received PPP loans.”

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Tamara writes about businesses, technology and the local economy for The Colorado Sun. She also writes the "What's Working" column, available as a free newsletter at Contact her at,...