The flexible rules of the Paycheck Protection Program allowed virtually any small business or business in the United States to qualify for a government-guaranteed relief loan. Frustrated citizens and activist groups criticized thousands of recipients they deemed unworthy, including wealthy lawyers, politicians and political lobbyists, listed companies and companies under government investigation.
Now, the federal loan program has drawn criticism for granting loans to organizations that have challenged vaccine safety.
According to data from the Small Business Administration, which manages the program, six organizations that made claims that scientists called bogus received paycheck protection program loans totaling more than $ 1.1 million. The data was released last month by court order, in response to a lawsuit filed by The New York Times and other news agencies.
The groups that received the loans are Children’s Health Defense, an organization founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.; the informed consent action network; the National Vaccine Information Center; Mercola.com Health Resources and Mercola Consulting Services, both affiliated with prominent vaccine skeptic Joseph Mercola; and Tenpenny Integrative Medical Center, a medical practice run by Sherri Tenpenny, physician and author whose books include “Saying No to Vaccines: A Resource Guide for All Ages”.
The loans, which were made by banks and backed by the government in an effort to stave off the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, ranged in size from $ 72,500 at Dr Tenpenny’s Medical Center to $ 335,000 at Mercola.com.
The loans did not appear to break Small Business Administration rules: Paycheck Protection Program loans were available to any small business or non-profit organization (typically those with 500 or fewer workers) willing to certify that ” the current economic uncertainty makes this loan request necessary “to support their continued activities. Representatives of the Small Business Association did not respond to questions about the loans.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate, a London-based advocacy group, discovered the loans, and the Washington Post made their first report on them.
“There is an anomaly here,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the group. “The PPP was necessary to deal with the economic shock of Covid, and anti-vaxxers fundamentally inhibit our ability to defeat and overcome Covid.
Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine Information Center in Sterling, Va., Said by email that her group had applied for her loan “when it became clear that lockdowns and restrictions on social distancing were threatening. directly the job security of a number of our employees and jeopardized the continued tenancy of our head office in Virginia. The group used the loan to retain its 21 workers, she said.
Ms. Fisher took issue with the idea that her group is anti-vaccine. The organization “does not make recommendations on the use of vaccines and encourages everyone to be fully informed about the risks and complications of infectious diseases and vaccines,” she said.
May 5, 2021, 10:31 p.m. ET
Del Bigtree, founder of the Informed Consent Action Network, also objected to being labeled anti-vaccination, saying his group opposes “the distribution of products that are not properly tested for anti-vaccination. of security”. He does not consider Covid-19 vaccines to be safe, he said.
The loan allowed his organization, near Austin, Texas, to retain 10 jobs, he said.
“We used the loan as it was designed,” Bigtree said.
Several of the groups have been sanctioned by Facebook for making misleading statements, according to Dani Lever, a Facebook spokesperson.
A page run by Dr Tenpenny was taken down in December for violating the site’s disinformation policy, Ms Lever said. The National Vaccine Clearinghouse and Child Health Advocacy cannot advertise on Facebook. Both groups’ pages, as well as the Informed Consent Action Network’s Facebook page, have been removed from Facebook’s algorithmic recommendation system, reducing their visibility on the site.
The Paycheque Protection Program distributed $ 523 billion to more than five million small businesses from April to August to help them endure closures and other economic shocks caused by the pandemic. As long as the beneficiaries use most of the money to pay workers and comply with other rules, the loans can be fully canceled and repaid by the US government.
Congress recently allocated $ 284 billion to restart the program, and hard-hit organizations – those whose sales have fallen by at least 25% since the pandemic took hold – are eligible for a second loan. Ms Fisher said her group had no plans to apply for another loan.
Mr Bigtree said he too had no plans to reapply. “Our donor base has grown a lot thanks to this,” he said, referring to the pandemic.
The other four organizations that received assistance from the Paycheck Protection Program did not answer questions about their loans.
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Two of the groups received loans very early in the program, when funding was limited and vulnerable small businesses struggled to overcome queues often prioritized rich and well-connected candidates.
Tenpenny Integrative Medical Center obtained a loan on April 11 from KeyBank, and the National Vaccine Information Center received one four days later from the Northwest Federal Credit Union. Neither lender responded to a request for comment.
Mr. Ahmed’s group recently published a report on an October online rally hosted by the National Vaccine Information Center to discuss the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Center for Countering Digital Hate report, speakers at the event, including Mr Kennedy and Dr Tenpenny, described the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to expand the ranks of vaccine skeptics.
Such efforts come as the United States government work to persuade the skeptics that coronavirus vaccines are safe and effective. Some frontline workers in hospitals and nursing homes hesitated to get vaccinated.
Congress created the Paycheck Protection Program at the end of March as part of the CARES Act. Rules for the program were hastily drafted and frequently revised, and the relief effort drew sharp criticism from lawmakers and others for distributing money unevenly and unfairly, so as not to target the money on the most needy beneficiaries.
Loans to three of the vaccine’s critics – Children’s Health Defense, the Informed Consent Action Network and Mercola.com – were made in May by JPMorgan Chase. A spokeswoman for the bank declined to comment on the loans. Another lender, PNC, declined to comment on its loan to Mercola Consulting Services in late April.