The $2 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package won’t be enough to save a restaurant industry largely shuttered by state decree, New York restaurateurs argued in a virtual town hall Sunday.
More than 100 people called into the online meeting, which centered around a question and answer session with U.S. Rep Carolyn Maloney. Many of the attendees were members of the hospitality industry; they spoke about the need for rent relief, gaps in insurance coverage, and the stimulus package’s strict limits on small business aid. New York assemblyperson Joseph Lentol hosted the forum.
Though Maloney initially touted the law’s aid provisions, calling some of them “fantastic,” she changed her tone after the attendees raised concerns. She pledged to work on further federal aid; Congress is reportedly prepping for yet another stimulus bill.
Town hall participants expressed particular skepticism over the law’s so-called “paycheck protection program.” Under that plan, restaurants and other small businesses can qualify for low-interest loans, but those measures are tightly tied to worker payrolls. The forgivable portion of those loans are diminished if restaurants don’t rehire all their full time employees by June 30th.
Several people said they’re concerned that their business won’t be able to reopen by that time. Mark Shay, director of operations at esteemed fine dining restaurant Indian Accent, said his larger group needed to lay off more than 1,000 workers among locations in Midtown, London, and New Delhi and would be unlikely to reopen by the end of June. Another participant worried that there wouldn’t be enough money to reopen, while yet another said staffing would be an issue, as their cooks had left the country due to visa issues post-closures.
“I’m lucky if I’m open by August,” the restaurateur said.
Others spoke about issues surrounding paying rent. One participant wrote on the town hall chat that their landlord was willing to work through the situation but that they couldn’t “afford no rent.” State Senator Michael Gianaris has already proposed a bill that would suspend payments for small businesses and residential tenants who are out of work due to the pandemic. The legislation has been referred to the state judiciary committee.
Still, loans are not enough, argued David Rosen, who’s an owner at popular Williamsburg bars such as the Woods and the Breakers. He said that instead businesses need grants, given the lack of clarity over when restaurants and bars can reopen. With a loan, he said, “all that I’ll have is a business that’s still not functional. I’m going to have the ongoing uncertainty, and I’ll have $250,000 worth of debt.” Fixed costs such as rent still need to be paid as well, he added.
“It’s absurd to think that I’ll have to take a loan because I’ve been forced by the government to shut down,” Rosen said, citing a risk of burdening his family with a few decades’ worth of debt.
Andrew Rigie — head of the New York Hospitality Alliance, a group that advocates on behalf of restaurant owners — reiterated his organization’s calls for a cap on fees charged by third-party delivery platforms, for sales tax relief, and for rent forgiveness. He also brought up the issue of business interruption insurance not covering the shutdown; viruses or pandemics are often excluded from policies.
“You’re raising a lot of good points, and they’re all true,” Maloney said following a long comment. She added, presumably referring to legislators who drafted the federal stimulus, “They were obviously not talking to restaurants.”
The congresswoman’s district includes much of the Upper East Side, Greenpoint, Long Island City, Astoria, and Roosevelt Island.
Restaurants, which have laid off tens of thousands due to the shutdown of dining rooms to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, face unprecedented economic difficulty in light of the public health crisis. Many argue that a slew of businesses will close without federal financial assistance; when asked about government help, city and state officials like Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have said that they are relying on federal aid.