Restaurants Seek Federal Aid as Omicron Surge Threatens Another Hard Winter

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Small bars, eateries lobby Congress for additional funding as COVID-19 version spurs infections nationwide

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“I can’t go into more debt to bail out this restaurant,” said Dwayne Allen, owner of Breadfruit & Rum Bar in Phoenix, which left behind on his restaurant rent after a prolonged shutdown of business during the pandemic. Said he must pay his landlord in full by the end of January and has taken out a $48,000 loan to do so.

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“I don’t know where that money is going to come from,” said Mr Allen, who signed the letter organized by the Independent Restaurant Coalition, an advocacy group for small operators formed in 2020 in response to the pandemic.

Congress last year created a nearly $30 billion fund to help struggling restaurants, but the money ran out within weeks of its launch. Lobbyists for the industry, including the National Restaurant Association, pressured lawmakers to replenish the fund.

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“In an outbreak of new variants, restaurants are the first to suffer,” said Sean Kennedy, a vice president at Restaurant Lobby, “so there has been increased interest in moving on.”

Mr. Kennedy and other industry advocates have found support from censors Ben Cardin (D., MD) and Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), who are working on a bill that would provide an additional COVID-19 relief fund. . Range of small businesses including restaurants.

No legislation has been introduced and any bill will face resistance from Republican lawmakers, who have said Congress has already given too much money to private industries during the pandemic.

Restaurants are pressing their case nearly two years after the pandemic first prompted authorities to close dining rooms, mandate the wearing of masks and, more recently, vaccination proof in some areas. US food-service operators have seen uneven recovery as fluctuating health restrictions continue to intersect with supply disruptions and labor shortages.

Fast-food spots have typically sold out faster than full-service, sit-down restaurants. According to market research firm, NPD Group, more than 63% of independent restaurants are full-service establishments. Drive-thru and to-go sales have helped many large restaurant chains survive the various challenges of the pandemic.

According to the NPD, customer orders at full-service restaurants were down about 18% in the year ending November compared to the same period before the pandemic, while orders at fast-food restaurants were less than 2%.

Operators said the proliferation of the Omicron version could add to difficulties for some restaurants. For the week ended December 1, US restaurant seats were down 7% from 2019 levels, according to data from reservation service OpenTable Inc. By the end of the month, they were down 32% from the same metric, according to the company. ,

Some operators face new and returning COVID-19 regulations as infections escalate. Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston will join New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and some other jurisdictions this month that require proof of vaccination to dine inside.

Some of the financial aid given to restaurants earlier in the pandemic is starting to dry up. Local prohibitions on business evictions, such as those adopted to protect businesses in New York City and Seattle, are set to expire on January 15.

Sarah Lund, owner of Bodega and The Rest Bar and Restaurant in Salt Lake City, said she entered the pandemic debt-free, but has since accumulated more than $100,000 in loans and credit-card balances. She said she recently transferred her last personal savings to cover her estate taxes and payroll.

“There’s nothing left. I’m at the end,” said Ms. Lund, who was among restaurant operators advocating for more federal funding.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced bills to the House and Senate last June, adding nearly $60 billion to the restaurant program. More than 220 House members and 42 senators signed the bills, but they did not move forward.

Some lawmakers are pushing for a wider pool of funding for small-business owners hurt by the pandemic, including restaurants, fitness studios and live venues. A group of Democratic House members supported the effort in a letter to congressional leaders last month, though it still needs to garner bipartisan support. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the Biden administration was discussing the needs of restaurants and small businesses with Congress, among other concerns.

Many independent restaurants say consumer demand has improved since 2020, but finding enough employees to stay open throughout all of their operating hours and generate sales remains a problem. Hiring trends are high in the industry, but employment in food service and bars remains short of 653,000 jobs since February 2020, Labor Department data released Friday.

Mark Starr, owner of David’s Pizza in Spokane, Wash., said his sales have resumed in 2020, but his staff of 18 is down from 27 pre-pandemic. They often have to turn customers away during peak hours and run catering orders on their own due to labor shortage, he said.

“People talk like it’s over,” Mr Starr said of the crisis. “It’s not.”

Write Heather Haddon [email protected] . Feather

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