EDITORIAL

State needs to hurry up with restaurant aid

The state ignored a Springfield strip club’s history of violations to grant it state COVID-19 aid ahead of law-abiding businesses. What gives?

The Mardi Gras Gentlemen's Club in Springfield was awarded a $75,000 state COVID relief grant despite having had its license suspended for eight days by the ABCC when inspectors saw two unmasked dancers giving lap dances and no evidence of food being served. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

There’s a whole lot of hurt out there these days, especially among restaurants and small businesses, and not nearly enough aid to ease the pain for the thousands of business owners and their employees who have spent the last year living on the edge.

Around 4,000 businesses in the Commonwealth are waiting to see if they have a shot at one of the state grants under a $668 million COVID-19 relief program; another 1,700 have been notified they were ineligible or did not match the priorities of the program.

“We have been inundated with calls from businesses that have been suffering, particularly restaurants, who simply haven’t been told whether they qualify or not,” Senator Eric Lesser told the Globe editorial board. “Thousands haven’t heard yet, and it’s frustrating for them.”

And it was like rubbing salt in the wound that a number of restaurants that have been awarded grants by the quasi-public Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation have also broken COVID-19 rules. At least 23 bars and restaurants that have shared in $1.36 million of that grant money, many at the maximum amount of $75,000, have been cited by the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission and had their liquor licenses suspended. One faced thousands of dollars in fines for breaches of the Baker administration’s COVID-19 guidelines.

The administration announced the grant program with the usual fanfare at the end of last year, noting it was made possible in part by a federal COVID relief bill (signed in the waning days of the Trump administration) and in part by “funds appropriated through” the state budget.

“This business relief fund targets the hardest hit small businesses that have an exceptional need of cash relief,” the MGCC website notes.

The application process closed Jan. 15, and grants were supposed to be announced by early February.

Among the eligible businesses topping the Baker administration’s list were restaurants, bars, caterers, and indoor recreation and entertainment establishments.

The latter included a Springfield strip club called the Mardi Gras, which scored one of those $75,000 grants. The club, which had been raided by the FBI and the IRS in the fall of 2019 as part of an “ongoing investigation,” also had its license suspended for eight days by the ABCC when inspectors saw two unmasked dancers giving lap dances to two men (so much for social distancing) and no evidence of food being consumed.

Now, it’s not that strip clubs should be excluded from state aid; their employees have bills to pay too. Nor should a COVID violation or two automatically mean an establishment and its employees should be left out in the cold.

But it’s also easy to see why law-abiding businesses would be rankled to see scofflaws get cash before they do.

The Colonial Hotel, in Gardner, got a $75,000 grant after being fined some $3,000 for hosting two weddings that violated COVID capacity limits.

The Greatest Bar, in Boston, also the recipient of a $75,000 grant, was, according to inspectors, so crowded during their visit that they had difficulty moving through the private party then in progress, where they noted “little to no food service.”

K.C.’s Pub and Grill, in Weymouth, was cited for staff not wearing masks and “no indication of food service.” Inspectors quoted owner Nick Akoury as saying, “No government is going to tell me how to run my business.”

He didn’t, however, turn down the state’s $70,000 grant.

Bars that don’t purport to be anything other than watering holes are still not allowed to open under state regulations — something some of them have already protested to the Baker administration.

The real problem here is not the handful of restaurants with COVID violations that received state aid, but the delay in getting aid out to other establishments. The state needs to clear that backlog, and do it quickly.

Clarification: This editorial has been updated to clarify that of the nearly 6,000 applicants to the state’s aid program who have not received assistance, 1,700 have already been notified that they are ineligible or that they did not meet the priorities of the program.


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