More than £70 million in grants to support businesses in Northern Ireland as they recover from the Covid-19 have started to be issued.
Some £72.3 million will be paid to businesses that were permitted to remain open during the most months of lockdown but struggled due to reduced footfall.
More than 13,000 businesses, which did not qualify for support during the most recent lockdown period, will receive top-up grants.
Of those, 12,100 businesses will receive a £5,000 top-up while more than 1,100 businesses will receive a £10,000 top-up.
Finance Minister Conor Murphy has visited two businesses in Belfast city centre that will benefit from the grants, a Centra shop in Cathedral Quarter and Sawers delicatessen.
Mr Murphy says he recognised while these businesses were able to continue to operate during the most recent restrictions, their trade and footfall were impacted.
“I have been determined throughout the pandemic to ensure support reaches as many businesses as possible,” he said.
“These top-up payments will benefit thousands of small and medium-sized businesses across retail, hospitality, tourism, leisure and manufacturing, which were unable to access Executive business support schemes.
“We had to change, if you didn’t change, you died and that was it,” he told the PA news agency.
“Footfall dropped by nearly 100%, we had no one in town. There were days when we did not have one customer in. I was standing in there by myself, we had no staff, they were all on furlough. It was frightening.
“Footfall then came back, because we are a destination shop, people began to come to us.
“But it was great on Monday to see everyone open again.
“It’s not back to normal but it’s great to see people around and Saturdays are coming back to the old Saturdays again.”
Mr Sloan said his business did not qualify for the original Covid relief grants in the first lockdown because they were able to open and welcomed the top-up grants announced on Thursday as well as the minister’s visit.
“It’s great to have all this excitement around the shop, it’s good for Belfast.”
Mr Murphy also visited Donagh McGoveran’s Centra shop in the Cathedral Quarter.
The shop saw sales drop by 70%.
“It was a significant jolt to the business,” he said.
Mr McGoveran opened the business during a time of buzz in the Cathedral Quarter with the extension of the nearby Ulster University campus and more student accommodation being built.
“It had a transformational effect on this part of the city so the pandemic was a devastating blow for all the shops in the area,” he said.
“We got a bit of an increase in footfall in September last year when things started to open up, but then we went back into full lockdown later in the year and things really didn’t start to recover until the last week or so, we’ve seen a bit of a buzz about the city centre.
“Hospitality opening up has really helped us in terms of people coming into the city centre.”
He welcomed the top-up grants from the Department of Finance.
“We would have missed out on the grants that a lot of hospitality qualified for because we were officially allowed to stay open,” he said.
“That’s why we engaged with the Department of Finance to get them to understand, they did and they listened to us and understood where we are coming from.
“So these top-up grants are the result of a lot of that interaction so it is very welcome to finally get to receive those.”