With Democrats in Control of Congress, Hope Rises for Restaurant Relief

A restaurant delivery worker rides through the snow in New York City last month. Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, restaurant owners and workers have sought real financial relief to see them through mandated shutdowns, necessary business stoppages, and guidelines that ban — or at least discourage — the public from visiting restaurants at all. Despite the industrywide push, however, actual help has been hard to find.

In October, the House of Representatives passed its version of the RESTAURANTS Act. Part of an overarching $2.2 trillion federal relief package, the grant program — Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed to Survive (a.k.a. RESTAURANTS) — would have allocated $120 billion to helping independent restaurants get through the pandemic. But the Senate’s version of the bill went nowhere. It was introduced, a few days after the House bill, by Republican Senator Roger Wicker, and then … it sat there. When Congress finally passed a new relief package in late December — the second-largest relief deal ever, at $900 billion, but also less than half of what the House bill had called for — the RESTAURANTS Act wasn’t included.

This, despite the fact that circumstances have only grown more dire for business owners. More than 110,000 restaurants had closed as of the National Restaurant Association’s most recent count, and that was before winter really set in. By the end of December, the industry still accounted for well over 2 million lost jobs. The package that did pass offered some relief to some restaurants, including a second round of PPP, and it’s appreciated, says Amanda Cohen, the chef and owner of Dirt Candy. It also isn’t enough.

Cohen is one of the leaders of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which has been advocating for industry-specific aid since the pandemic began. So has the National Restaurant Association, a more established trade group that represents all kinds of restaurants, including chains. The two groups don’t agree on all aspects of the bill, including exactly what types of restaurants would, or should, qualify. But what they unequivocally agree on is the fact that, with Democrats poised to take control of the Senate, and Biden heading to the White House, some version of the RESTAURANTS Act now needs to be passed.

Given the new situation, there is also some degree of hope. “We think the outlook is pretty positive,” Cohen says. The fact that New York senator Chuck Schumer — a co-sponsor of the Senate bill who has repeatedly expressed his support for the industry, and who, it’s probably worth noting, has famously spent more than $8,000 on Junior’s cheesecake over the years — is now incoming Majority Leader is, she says, a very big deal.

“As one of the hardest-hit industries during this pandemic, we must do everything we can to ensure our restaurants and our restaurant workers are protected, otherwise we will shortchange our entire economy,” Schumer said in a statement in August, when he signed onto the bill. “Restaurants can’t wait. Congress needs to act now to pass this important legislation and other critical assistance that struggling small businesses and workers are in desperate need of.”

When the second stimulus package passed without it, Schumer again stressed that the current provisions aren’t enough. “We must do all we can to save restaurants. They are the heart of our Main Streets,” he tweeted. “I will not stop fighting until we pass the RESTAURANTS Act into law to provide the relief that is truly needed.”

Cohen says “a lot of weird things” have happened as a result of the pandemic, “but probably one of the strangest is that I’ve found myself on the phone with Senator Schumer numerous times talking about restaurants.” And his new role is “a pretty big relief for restaurants.” With a Democratic-majority Senate and a sympathetic White House, Cohen says, “We feel pretty good that we can get the bill passed.”

But how that would actually happen, and when, isn’t totally clear. The first step will be for the bill to get reintroduced in both the House and the Senate once Congress is back in session later this month. Everybody is confident about that part. “I’ve no doubt that it will be reintroduced,” says Sean Kennedy, the executive vice-president for public affairs at the National Restaurant Association.

Then there’s the question of what should be in it. It’s been ten months since the pandemic started, and seven since the bill was officially introduced, and this is — potentially — an opportunity to update the legislation to better reflect our current reality. “The depth of the challenge wasn’t fully appreciated at the time,” Kennedy points out. “Are there lessons? Are there changes that need to be made to it?”

Maybe there aren’t. Still, the contents would need to be hashed out. As it stands now, there are substantive differences between the House and Senate versions, each with “unique winners and losers,” Kennedy says, and one way or another, those differences have to be reconciled. (The National Restaurant Association likes the Senate version, which involves chains and franchises in a way the House bill does not.)

To pass any version of the RESTAURANTS Act, Congress needs to actually vote on it. In theory, that could be done even absent a third relief package. In practice, though, restaurant relief would most likely be part of a larger stimulus bill. Biden hasn’t yet laid out the details of his proposed multitrillion-dollar relief package, but he has said that it includes “rent forbearance and assistance to small businesses.” That gives groups like the National Restaurant Association an opportunity to act: “When we see a larger train like that moving,” Kennedy says, “that’s where we will make the press for the RESTAURANTS Act to be included.” For now, the Independent Restaurant Coalition is focused on making sure that the current plight of the industry is still on lawmakers’ minds.

How the money gets allocated is another sticking point: Precisely because of its flexibility — the grants can be used for pretty much anything restaurants have to pay for, from payroll to rent to food to outstanding debts — the money won’t necessarily trickle down to workers. Unlike PPP, which now requires that at least 60 percent of the funds go toward payroll and that restaurants maintain staffing levels, these grants could go toward anything the restaurant needs to stay afloat, as long as it’s deemed essential by the Treasury Department.

For a lot of restaurant owners, the limitations of PPP just didn’t make sense — they were closed, or open at very partial capacity; they didn’t need staff. What they needed was money to pay rent. The RESTAURANTS Act has the flexibility to do that. But that flexibility is exactly what makes some labor activists skeptical: There’s no guarantee this money would do anything for restaurant workers. That’s why they’d like to see a few tweaks, including some kind of payroll requirement.

“I mean, here’s the thing,” says Ivy Vance, a laid-off restaurant worker in Dallas and an organizer with Restaurant Workers United, as well as the DSA’s national Restaurant Organizing Project. “We’re not against the RESTAURANTS Act. As restaurant workers, we know firsthand that restaurants absolutely need help. And they need direct help right now.” It’s just that right now, she says, it’s structured as “classic trickle-down economics. It’s saying, ‘Okay, we’re gonna give the money to the owners. They know how to best spend their money.’ And maybe from a purely business perspective, yes. But we’re living in a society with no social safety net.”

Kennedy, at the National Restaurant Association, agrees it’s an issue. “It’s been tricky,” he says. “We think that policy-makers generally are moving in the right direction as far as things like stimulus checks. But for us, we need to ensure that these restaurant workers have a restaurant that they can come back to, that the restaurant is going to be able to survive this pandemic, reopen their doors, and bring everybody back onto payroll.”

Cohen, a longtime advocate for industry equity, puts it in starker terms: “Without restaurants, there’s no employment.”

Hope Is Rising for Real Restaurant Relief