July — so recent, yet so long ago — was truly a different time. During the summer, just a few months after millions of Americans received $1,200 stimulus checks and small businesses were keeping the lights on with Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loans, Congress was already talking about a second stimulus package to ward off impending economic chaos.
It seemed logical, at the time, that Congress would find their way to some deal on a stimulus package that would help at least some people before the 2020 election. That, of course, never happened. When negotiations fell apart, proposals from Republicans and Democrats differed by more than a trillion dollars, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to pass any bill that didn’t include protections from liability for employers who got their workers sick during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the following months, things just got worse. Sure, the stock market hit record highs, but low-income people were forced to wait in line for hours at food banks to feed themselves, faced eviction even though there was supposed to be a federal moratorium on evictions, and struggled to find work. And of course, the pandemic also raged on, killing hundreds of thousands of Americans while Congress waited until the election was over to address the impending catastrophe.
Whether you think these negotiations failed back in August because the Democrats held the package hostage in an effort to sway the outcome of the presidential election or because Republicans are stingy greed monsters who would prefer to give billions of dollars to banks and big business instead of struggling Americans, it’s inarguable that the country has been without any meaningful new federal aid since the CARES Act was signed into law on March 27. Now, for the first time in months, there’s bipartisan support for a new bill that would pump more than $900 billion into the economy.
Unfortunately, pretty much all of that money will be directed into industries other than the one that arguably needs it most: the hospitality industry. While it does call for an additional $300 billion infusion into the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) and rental assistance for families facing eviction, among other measures, it completely fails to address the problems that threaten to collapse the restaurant industry.
As the first round of PPP loans indicated, $300 billion isn’t nearly enough to be a lifeline for restaurants. Back in April, a similar amount of money — $349 billion — was snapped up in less than two weeks by businesses of all sizes. Now that the PPP has been closed since August, it seems reasonable to think that businesses, scraping by since those funds ran dry, are champing at the bit for something to help them survive the winter. That is, of course, assuming that those businesses are able to pay back the loans they’ve already taken out, or qualify for forgiveness.
This is almost beside the point because small businesses that are also restaurants don’t need loans, they need relief. They need some of what the airline and transit industries stand to gain under this proposal — about $45 billion in funds that don’t have to be paid back. After months of very limited revenue, restaurants don’t have enough money coming in right now to make promises about what they’ll be able to pay back in the future.
It’s not surprising that Congress is willing to bail out major corporations with no strings attached while the lifeblood of the economy withers on the vine, but it is disappointing. So many restaurants have already closed — at least 100,000, according to the National Restaurant Association — and more of those closures are coming. Winter is here, and it’s soon going to be too cold in most cities for restaurants to continue limping along with outdoor dining. Without any relief, the coming months are going to be devastating as we all watch our favorite establishments close.
What’s worse is that when those restaurants do close in December or January or whenever the axe finally falls, they’re going to leave potentially millions of workers unemployed. The newest stimulus proposal does pretty much nothing for those workers, outside of some assistance for those who are facing eviction. That seems like a pretty bare minimum for people who have already been scraping by on unemployment benefits for months, or risking their lives by working in restaurants during the pandemic.
It’s also important to remember that the lack of aid for restaurants is a serious about-face for Democratic leadership. Back in October, the Democratic-led House voted to pass the RESTAURANTS Act, which would have directed $120 billion in federal assistance to the restaurant industry. It’s unclear, and certainly unfortunate, that party leadership has essentially abandoned restaurants in this proposal. Republicans have pretty much ignored the RESTAURANTS Act altogether, so I wouldn’t put much faith in the idea that they’ll be the ones to come to the rescue of the country’s restaurants.
And of course, the stimulus proposal is just a proposal right now. There will be more horse-trading and shifting of the numbers, but it seems highly unlikely that aid for restaurants will miraculously find its way into the final bill. Right now, Democrats are describing the plan as an “interim package,” per CNBC, intended to stem the bleeding until President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated in January. But at this very moment, McConnell is busy passing an even stingier proposal around to lawmakers.
It’s a nice thought that Biden and the new Congress will be able to come to some sort of deal on a restaurant relief package at some point, but considering that the Republicans still hold a majority in the Senate, it’s unrealistic to think that some great bill is coming in the near future.
Let us not forget that Mitch McConnell, a man who “revels” in being called the Grim Reaper and has vowed to make it as difficult as possible for the Biden administration to get any progressive legislation through Congress, will possibly still be Senate majority leader when the new Congress is seated in January. That depends on how the two runoff elections shake out in Georgia, which could shift the shape of the Senate. If that shift does happen, then we’re talking about a much sunnier future for some kind of restaurant relief.
But at that point, how many restaurants will still be around to benefit from this extremely hypothetical assistance package?