fb-pixel Skip to main content

Forget about Trump vs. Biden for a moment, if you can. There’s a third potential outcome from the presidential election, and it’s one no business leader wants, regardless of political affiliation: that the final outcome might not be known for many weeks to come.

The presidential election and to some extent, the race for control of the US Senate, have created a legislative logjam. Once the dust finally settles, maybe Congress can finally pass another stimulus bill. Hanging in the balance: more stimulus checks for individuals, additional unemployment assistance, help for the battered airline industry, and a reopening of the vault doors to the Paycheck Protection Program.

Advertisement



The fate of the federal stimulus bill also hangs over the State House, where legislators still don’t have an approved spending plan for this fiscal year, four months in. With a potential $4 billion shortfall looming — thanks to the economic wreckage caused by the coronavirus — lawmakers had been holding out hope that some help might come from Washington. The Democratic leadership in the US House pushed for aid to state and local governments months ago, but the GOP-led Senate has resisted.

For many small businesses, the program in most need of attention is the PPP. Despite some snafus at the outset, this creation of the CARES Act in March provided a crucial lifeline for millions of businesses across the country in the spring and summer. But that money, distributed in the form of forgivable loans, has largely run out.

The PPP has widespread support in both parties, but its extension has been hung up among partisan bickering in Washington over other issues with the stimulus bill.

The PPP doors swung shut in August, with about $130 billion left in the program. Congress could start the money flowing again, or even add to the pot. Other reforms that small businesses anxiously await: rules that would let previous recipients return for another round, a streamlining of the forgiveness process for loans under $150,000, and changes to help ensure businesses don’t get punished at tax time.

Advertisement



For Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, this additional money is crucial to prevent more storefronts from going dark around the state. But if there are questions about who controls the White House or Congress, Hurst fully expects a longer wait for an answer on the PPP’s future.

On Beacon Hill, the waiting also continues for a new budget. The COVID-19 pandemic hit in March and jammed up the usual budget-writing machinery of state government. Governor Charlie Baker recently drafted a new spending plan for the fiscal year that began on July 1 that offers a path forward that doesn’t rely on a new fiscal stimulus bill in Washington. But it would sure make the jobs of the House and Senate ways and means committees easier if they knew whether to expect some help from D.C., and what it might look like.

Eileen McAnneny, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, also warns of additional costs that businesses will face in 2021: projected increases in health insurance and unemployment insurance premiums, a higher minimum wage, and the state’s new family and medical leave program taking effect.

In typical years, the passage of the budget usually precedes the movement of other big bills. Among those that remain stuck in conference committee this time around: an economic stimulus package that would approve hundreds of millions of borrowing capacity for the Baker administration.

Advertisement



Originally envisioned as a way to help boost the state’s then-vibrant economy, it’s now seen as crucial to help prevent the economic crisis from worsening.

Among the programs caught in the crossfire: a grant program that would offer badly needed relief to struggling restaurants. The House initially approved a restaurant relief bill as separate legislation in the spring, but the Senate failed to pass it. So it was inserted into the economic development bill, and its fate is now inextricably linked to the broader bill.

For restaurateurs like Jeff Gates, time is running out. He and his partners have closed three of their seven restaurants in Greater Boston. (The demise of Cinquecento was pushed along by a nearby water main break.) The other four, including Aquitaine and Gaslight in Boston, might not have survived if not for hundreds of thousands of dollars from the PPP, Gates said. That federal program was the difference between life and death for so many restaurants, he said.

Things are about to get much tougher for the restaurant industry. Cold days and colder nights will make eating outside a tough sell, and many consumers are still reluctant to dine indoors with COVID-19 raging. Plus the rules just got stricter: Restaurants and entertainment venues will need to close at 9:30 p.m., per Baker’s latest order.

Gates says many restaurateurs are now counting their dollars, to see if they can hang on until April, when the good weather returns.

Advertisement



Another round of government assistance would provide a crucial bridge to the spring. But the restaurant industry may be forced to wait, along with everyone else.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.