Restaurants need relief in COVID package

February 19, 2021

With Congress closing the books on impeachment, lawmakers are pivoting back to coronavirus relief, by far the nation’s most immediate priority. Competing proposals have emerged from both parties, and it remains unclear exactly what will be passed into law. But odds are improving that Congress will provide long-needed relief to our restaurant industry, which has been depleted like no other sector over the course of the pandemic.

Restaurants were among the first to suffer when new public health rules went into effect almost one year ago. To this day, restaurants continue to bear the brunt of limits on public gatherings, even as other parts of the economy are beginning to reopen and recover. Owners have taken extraordinary adaptive measures to serve customers in a safe manner, often relying solely on delivery and curbside pickup options. Yet for thousands of establishments, the uphill battle has been a losing one. One out of six restaurants have now shut their doors permanently, and six out of 10 remain closed to indoor dining. These closures account for roughly one in four job losses owing to the pandemic.

The ripple effects of restaurant closures have caused the entire food supply chain to take a hit. Farmers have struggled with lower demand for crops. Meat producers have had to euthanize millions of animals. In my home state of Mississippi, fishermen have had trouble selling their catch to seafood establishments, which have seen a drop in tourism. Until restaurants can return to full capacity, the entire food supply chain will remain vulnerable.

Federal relief has been crucial to the survival of countless small businesses during this crisis. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which Congress created last year, has provided emergency capital to help employers keep their workers on the payroll. Unfortunately, PPP was not designed to meet the distinct needs of restaurants. In order to have their loans forgiven, PPP recipients are required to spend 60 percent of their loan money on payroll. But restaurants generally have to spend more on fixed costs like food, rent, and utilities, making PPP an impractical option. As a result, thousands of restaurants have yet to receive any federal relief at all, putting them in a uniquely vulnerable position.

Last year, I introduced the RESTAURANTS Act to help close the relief gap and provide restaurants with PPP-style loans to meet their unique needs. The bill would establish a revitalization fund tailored for restaurants and franchisees with 20 facilities or fewer. Grants could be used to cover a wide range of expenses, as well as losses dating back to the very start of the pandemic. This fund would give restaurants the lifeline they need at this critical juncture.

Lawmakers appear to agree. Earlier this month, the Senate adopted the framework of my bill in a budget amendment that passed by a vote of 90-10. This makes it much more likely that restaurant aid will be included in the forthcoming relief package. In addition, lawmakers in committee have allocated $25 billion for the restaurant fund — a down payment I hope will be replenished regularly until the pandemic has passed. Congress now needs to finish the job by adopting these provisions into the unfinished relief bill.

Restaurants are not asking for a special bailout from Congress. They are simply asking for relief on par with the funds that have kept thousands of other small businesses afloat during this exceptionally challenging time. Their voices are now being heard.

This opinion editorial appeared in The Hill on February 18, 2021.