WILTON — Local businesses should look first to the federal government for help with staying afloat, according to David Lehman, commissioner of the Department of Economic & Community Development.

In a short online question-and-answer session with state Sen. Will Haskell, Lehman said the Paycheck Protection Program loan is the best chance for small businesses suffering the fallout of COVID-19 to find help.

“I realize it’s not a silver bullet for everyone,” he said, but the program lends money for business payroll, rent and utilities, offering potential loan forgiveness for money spent in those areas.

“Obviously this is such a trying time for the state,” Haskell said, noting that 3,819 of his constituents are unemployed.

He credited Wilton Selectman Ross Tartell with the idea for the Q&A with Lehman that took place Monday afternoon.

“Ross has found that some businesses are more aware than others about what federal or state aid may be available… so he thought it might be a good idea to have a conversation about what is out there for businesses,” he said.

“There is still in excess of $100 billion out there,” Lehman said, with an Aug. 8 deadline for federal applications.

He said he saw the state’s role as largely being a kind of “concierge” to guide interested parties toward that federal money through its website.

Haskell expressed some trepidation from business owners insofar as whether the offer of loan forgiveness was real, or just how conditional it might be.

“I don’t think anyone is looking for a ‘gotcha’ moment,” Lehman said. “I think they want to avoid fraud.”

He encouraged business owners to keep good documentation, which could allow anywhere from 60 to 75 percent of those allocations forgiven from the original loan.

“This is an unprecedented economic and health crisis … The reality is that it’s necessary to keep our economy going,” he said.

Toward that end, Lehman said there would likely have to be compromises at the federal level in terms of negotiating the next relief bill, which is estimated to be one trillion dollars.

At the same time, he said the best thing for the state’s economy is to focus on keeping the virus levels low.

“If you look at the state’s data, it’s been great,” he said, but state officials are watching what’s happening in other states and they’ve presented red flags for opening too soon.

“It’s concerning,” Lehman said, with plans for the third phase of reopening in Connecticut still being examined.

“It’s just a very uncertain world we’re in right now,” he said.

Haskell pointed out his disappointment on a trip down to Compo Beach in Westport recently, where he saw many people congregating in close proximity without wearing masks.

“I’m nervous but cautiously optimistic that everyone in our community will do the right thing,” he said.

In response to a question of rent relief for business owners, Lehman pointed out that commercial property owners are likewise faced with mortgage payments and tax bills. In both cases, he said, it’s not part of the state’s purview to get involved and that the federal loan program remains the best option.

“The state doesn’t need to get in the middle of that,” he said.

“I realize that hasn’t worked for everyone … I do think that’s going to be the best form of rent relief that we’re going to get,” he said.

As far as the businesses themselves were concerned, Lehman said ultimately success in reopening would rest with how comfortable people are going to be returning to various businesses.

“Consumer confidence is critical,” he said, noting a “culture of compliance” to health mandates would go a long way.

“Wearing a mask is the best thing we can do for our economy,” he said.