BY KARL EVERS-HILLSTROM - 04/15/22 6:00 AM ET
Restaurants, gyms, assisted living facilities and other businesses devastated by the pandemic are mounting a final push for federal relief.
Advocates scored a momentous win last week when the House passed a bill to provide $55 billion in aid to restaurants and other hard-hit industries. They now face the challenge of garnering 60 votes in the Senate after several Republicans signaled their opposition to additional COVID-19 relief for businesses.
Industry groups and small business coalitions are ramping up lobbying efforts as Congress nears campaign season, aware that they’re running out of time to secure pandemic relief in an election year.
The Independent Restaurant Coalition released a survey Thursday showing that more than half of independent restaurants and bars will be forced to shut down within six months if they don’t receive government aid.
Democrats enacted a $28.6 billion fund to bolster struggling restaurants in last year’s COVID-19 relief package, but the money quickly ran dry, with only one out of three applicants receiving federal aid.
The coalition warns that scores of independent restaurants that amassed huge debts to keep their doors open face the threat of default, bankruptcy or eviction. Of the restaurant owners surveyed who missed out on relief, 48 percent said they are in danger of defaulting on a loan, compared to 22 percent who did receive government aid.
“There‘s just no way that a couple of great months of sales are going to make up for this immense debt burden that everyone is carrying,” said Erika Polmar, executive director of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, noting that she regularly speaks with restaurant owners who are facing over $800,000 in back rent.
Restaurants are also being hammered by inflation, with wholesale prices jumping a record 11.2 percent over the last 12 months. Wednesday’s Labor Department report found that food prices surged 2.4 percent last month, with cooking oil increasing by 8.4 percent and grain soaring by 16.1 percent. Surging fuel costs make ordering food less appealing for many Americans.
The industry will need to convince Republicans to get behind another allotment of pandemic relief after just six Republicans voted for the House-passed bill. Several GOP lawmakers blasted the bill as wasteful and inflationary, arguing that Democrats on the state and local level should first end pandemic restrictions on businesses.
“If you lose restaurants, you’re impacting all of the folks who are raising pigs, and therefore bacon, in Iowa and the Midwest. If you look at Alaska or Louisiana fisheries, most of that product is consumed in a restaurant,” Polmar said.
“The states I mentioned are Republican-led, so when we deliver those messages I’m confident we can bring them around and given the opportunity to vote, they’ll make the right decision.”
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a strong supporter of restaurant relief, has told advocates he will bring a restaurant relief bill to the floor right after senators return from their recess on April 25.
Senate leaders are debating whether to take up a companion to the House-passed bill, which would provide $42 billion for restaurants and $13 billion for other hard-hit small businesses, or a measure from Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) that would send $40 billion to restaurants and set aside funds specifically for gyms, live venues and other businesses.
The Economic Bridge Coalition, a collection of small business groups representing live event operators, amusement parks, travel advisers, equipment rental stores and other businesses hammered by the pandemic, is backing the House-passed bill, stating in a recent letter to lawmakers that unlike previous legislation it “doesn’t pick winners and losers by industry.”
The fitness industry, which has lost one in four gyms since the start of the pandemic, is pushing for the Cardin-Wicker bill, which would provide $2 billion for aid to fitness facilities that have suffered losses of more than 25 percent.
Gym advocates say that they shouldn’t be forced to compete with other industries for the pool of federal funds included in the House-passed bill, and have raised concerns that small gym operators wouldn’t have the resources to beat out other applicants for government aid.
“The constant refrain that we’ve heard from officials across the country is we have to close restaurants, bars and gyms when COVID cases spike,” said Brett Ewer, head of government relations at CrossFit who works with the Community Gym Coalition. “Well, we’ve covered two of those in terms of providing specific relief, but gyms are still waiting.”
Some industries feel they’ve been neglected as lawmakers focus on aiding restaurants and other businesses including Minor League Baseball teams, some of which would be eligible to tap into a $500 million fund under the Cardin-Wicker plan.
Assisted living providers have expressed frustration that they are excluded from both of the leading proposals to boost hard-hit industries, despite suffering a wave of closures and over $30 billion in losses during the pandemic.
“We’re certainly not doubting that other folks have been impacted, but they’re not front-line caregivers for 85-year-olds trying to protect them from COVID and getting them their additional booster shot,” said Maggie Elehwany, senior vice president of public policy at Argentum, an industry trade group. “We don’t understand why this is happening.”
The pathway to government aid is less clear for the assisted living industry, which received only a tiny fraction of the $178 billion in pandemic relief for health care providers that mostly went to hospitals and nursing homes. They’re pushing lawmakers to repurpose unspent pandemic relief money for struggling facilities.
“Folks are getting tired of waiting and tired of being told, ‘We’ll take care of you in the next bill,’” Elehwany said. “It seems like that next bill keeps coming and we keep getting left behind again.”
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