Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley is urging Congress to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.
On Tuesday, she issued a letter, cosigned by the rest of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, pushing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate President Chuck Schumer to add up to $60 billion in additional funds to the program, which was intended to help restaurant owners get back on their feet.
The $28.6 billion fund was created as part of the American Rescue Plan and designed as a lifeline for restaurants. But its rollout this summer was pockmarked with problems. The fund quickly became oversubscribed, and nearly two-thirds of the applicants — a total of 177,000 restaurants and bars — were denied funding. The Independent Restaurant Coalition estimates that 86 percent of operators who didn’t receive grants risk closing permanently without relief.
“Eighty-six percent represents 152,000 restaurants that are on the verge of closing. And that’s on top of the 100,000 that closed in 2020. That’s 250,000 restaurants,” said Erika Polmar, executive director of the Independent Restaurant Coalition. Before the pandemic, she said, the United States had 500,000 restaurants that supported 11 million jobs. If the fund is not replenished, she said, “we’ve cut the industry in half, and we’ve cut jobs in half.”
Restaurants continue to struggle with labor shortages, supply chain issues, and inflation — menu prices have risen 4.7 percent over the last 12 months, and beef prices are up 58 percent. Now, as they face the challenge of contending with the Delta and Omicron variants and the winter months ahead, Mass. lawmakers say it’s time to provide more financial support.
“Restaurateurs and their staff have worked throughout the pandemic, sacrificing of themselves, providing essential services, and feeding our communities,” the letter says. “The federal government has a responsibility to fully fund the RRF and prevent any further closures, layoffs, and losses for our hard-working restaurateurs and dedicated workers.”
For Steve “Nookie” Postal, the owner of Commonwealth in Kendall Square, the matter is urgent. Postal was among the first restaurant owners to go into “hibernation” last year, shutting his doors during winter for several months in an effort to stem his losses. He lobbied hard for the fund, but was not among the 2,556 Massachusetts restaurant owners who received a total $993 million.
He said his hopes that holiday parties might sustain him during December have been dashed amid the ascendance of the Omicron variant.
“We had six parties cancel between last week and this week,” he said. “I have no parties, no reservations for today.”
So now, as he faces another winter without the steady foot traffic of office workers, Postal is making contingency plans yet again. He’ll close his doors Dec. 17 and reopen on Jan. 6, paying his workers for the three weeks Commonwealth is closed.
“It’s so unfathomable that we’re still doing this,” he said, noting that he’s been pleading with Senator Elizabeth Warren to take up the issue of replenishing the fund in the Senate, but has yet to see any movement. “It’s so consumed my life and I don’t know if I’ll ever recover from this even if they do replenish the RRF.”
In Massachusetts, over 3,400 restaurants have shuttered since the start of the pandemic, and Nick Seamon, the owner of the Black Sheep Deli in Amherst, said it’s likely more will join them if the fund isn’t replenished. He was hit hard over the past two years as UMass Amherst imposed strict restrictions about off-campus dining, and has struggled to stay open without a steady stream of orders. His Paycheck Protection Program funds long since have run out, and not getting the revitalization support means he’s deep in a hole, he said. He wants Congress to act now.
“I thought the distribution of the RRF money was flawed. My buddy got $800,000 and I got nothing,” he said. “If restaurants have to close a second or third time, it’s probably a death knell for them.”
Polmar said that over 300 members of Congress have said they support the replenishment of the fund. Now she wants them allocate the $44 billion needed to pay out to the two-thirds of applicants who missed out on the first round. “If Congress replenishes, every person in that portal gets the money they need,” she said. “If they don’t act courageously in this moment, they are going to destroy an industry.”