Biden’s COVID relief package still leaves restaurants hungry

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The restaurant industry is finally getting its own bailout — but whether there’s enough to go around remains an open question. 

President Biden last week signed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief and stimulus package that included $28.6 billion earmarked specifically for the struggling restaurant industry. It’s the single largest financial relief program ever to target the US restaurant sector. 

To qualify, restaurants with fewer than 20 locations must subtract their 2020 revenue from their 2019 revenue and submit their applications for the difference — minus any Paycheck Protection Program funding received last year. The Small Business Administration is expected to start taking applications in the coming weeks. 

Problem is, the process is expected to be slow — and even with 110,000 restaurants having closed last year there isn’t enough money set aside to make up for the estimated $255 billion in overall losses suffered by the food services industry last year as a result of the pandemic, experts said. 

“It’s a great start but it will go in about five seconds,” said restaurant consultant Rick Camac. 

Erika Polmar, executive director of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, says it will urge that the pool be renewed until everyone gets paid. In the meantime, restaurateurs are worrying that they could be left out in the cold even as they dream of what they might do with the money. 

Ayala Donchin, executive chef and CEO of Evelyn’s Kitchen in Harlem, was among those who missed out on the first round of PPP funding as banks that partnered with the SBA famously doled out funds to large, established companies like the Los Angeles Lakers and Ruth’s Chris Steak House. 

Donchin, who called the first round “extremely demoralizing,” succeeded in snagging subsequent rounds of PPP funding, but that money was reserved — by law — for payroll. 

If she snags a piece of the restaurant bailout, which can be used on pretty much any business expenditure — from rent, to supplies, to food and improvements — she plans to use it to fix her crumbling infrastructure and expand her online sales. 

“The ovens. The lighting. A sign out front. Cabinet doors that are broken — and adding packaging to expand our ability to ship items nationally,” Donchin said. 

Still, she’s worried. “We don’t have the money yet. And it might not come for eight to 12 weeks. We’re still in survival mode and there’s no way to plan without having the money.” 

Biden has vowed that the application process will open up “within weeks, not months.” But even after it opens, the process is expected to be slowed down by efforts to eliminate some of the issues that plagued the first round of PPP loans. 

For the first three weeks, the SBA will prioritize grants to restaurants owned by women, veterans and anyone else deemed socially and economically disadvantaged. 

Then for the first two months, only restaurants that brought in less than $500,000 in annual revenue in 2019 need apply. After that, individual restaurants can apply for up to $5 million, and restaurant groups can apply for up to $10 million. 

Money that isn’t spent by the end of the year must be returned. 

Restaurateur James Mallios, owner of Greek restaurant Amali in Midtown and Bar Marseille in the Rockaways, said he would use the money to hire more staff and build more outdoor seating — as well as rebuilding wine lists “after freezing purchasing for almost a year.” 

He called the act a “lifeline,” despite knowing the money could run out before he gets some. “I hope we receive our grant, but even if we don’t and no more funds are made available, it gives us emotional wind in our sails.” 

New York City restaurants and bars are feeling more optimistic after a harsh winter generally. Indoor dining capacity, which resumed in February at 25 percent, is now at 35 percent and moving up to 50 percent on March 19. 

But they are still hurting. There were 25,000 eating and drinking establishments in the city before the pandemic hit. About 5,000 of those bars and eateries closed during the pandemic, according to the Partnership of New York. 

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