Bars and restaurants still struggling — will Congress help?

The renewed spread of the coronavirus is increasing the financial strain on bars and restaurants, and there’s a new push in Congress to provide businesses with additional financial help.

Many bars and restaurants were just beginning to recover from the pandemic this summer, with a growing number of people getting vaccinated and eager to return to their favorite gathering spots.
But the rapid spread of the delta variant has changed things. Restaurants are again dealing with mask requirements and how to protect the health of their employees and patrons.

“We don’t want these classic American small businesses to close,” said U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.

Unfortunately, as Kaine notes, many already have. The National Restaurant Association estimates that 90,000 restaurants nationwide — about 1 in 10 — have shut down since the start of the pandemic.

Kaine and his Virginia colleague, U.S. Sen Mark Warner, are leading a new push to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which was created by Congress to help struggling bars and restaurants.

The fund was established with $28.6 billion through the American Rescue Plan that Congress approved earlier this year, and was immediately inundated with 278,000 eligible applications, requesting more than $72 billion.

“Our goal is to just refill the bucket, like we did with the Paycheck Protection Program,” Kaine said. “We don’t want these restaurants to go away and not come back.”

One of the many bars and restaurants that closed down recently was Whitlow’s on Wilson in Arlington, which had been a popular hangout for more than 25 years.

The owners hope to return at some point and are looking for a new space.

Kaine pointed out that many of the businesses that sought financial assistance made small technical errors in their original applications, only to find out the money was gone after they correctly submitted their paperwork.

“And so you have restaurants in communities (that) might be across the street from each other — one was able to get the restaurant fund and one wasn’t,” he said.

Kaine noted that many restaurants are often “mom and pop, kind of classic small businesses, that are really relied upon in the community.”

Warner and Kaine have written a letter to the Senate leadership, urging that funding for the RRF be given a higher priority.

“The food and beverage industries have been among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with restaurant and food service sales down $280 billion from expected levels and restaurant jobs down 1.7 million from pre-pandemic levels,” the senators wrote.

The Senate is currently tackling a host of issues related to infrastructure legislation, so it’s unclear how quickly Congress might act on their request.

Last month, nearly a thousand independent restaurant owners, workers and activists held a rally in Washington, calling for replenishment of the restaurant fund.

Mitchell Miller

Mitchell Miller has worked at WTOP since 1996, as a producer, editor, reporter and Senior News Director. After working "behind the scenes," coordinating coverage and reporter coverage for years, Mitchell moved back to his first love -- reporting. He is now WTOP's Capitol Hill reporter.

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