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Gov. Charlie Crist announced Monday that the state will provide one-year, interest-free loans to small businesses affected by the Gulf oil spill.

Crist made the announcement after meeting with commercial fishermen and others on the state's west coast who depend on the tourist trade. They complained that their business is declining even though no oil has touched that region's beaches and remains hundreds of miles away.

Under the program, businesses with fewer than 100 employees are eligible in 26 coastal counties. The area includes all Gulf Coast counties and Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. So far, only three Panhandle counties — Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa — have had oil wash ashore, mostly tar balls.

Up to $25,000 per business will be available. To be eligible, a business owner must have been operational for one full year before the BP spill began April 20 and demonstrate physical or economic damage caused by the spill.

Crist had met earlier Monday with long-line commercial fishermen who catch grouper — a signature dish in Tampa Bay area restaurants. They told Crist in Madeira Beach that the federal government's decision to close areas of the Gulf to fishing because of the spill is threatening to cut into their hauls.


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