Restaurants hold out hope for $120B federal aid package

By  | 

A new bill is working its way through Congress to help struggling restaurants hit hardest by COVID-19. It comes as encouraging news for many eateries around the region that have found other federal response efforts didn't fit the bill.

Vermont is opening back up and more people are working and spending. But many restaurants are continuing to bleed cash because of capacity limits. That includes Honey Road on Church Street in Burlington.

"You see your savings account going down, where it was already kind of like wavering to begin with in the restaurant industry," said Cara Chigazola-Tobin, Honey Road's owner.

The Vermont Legislature is days away from passing a plan funneling $90 million to restaurants and other small businesses, but state leaders admit that won't be enough. Congress is now working on a $120 billion stimulus package designed just for restaurants.

"We have to respond according to the specific conditions of these industries that have meant so much to the vitality of the state of Vermont," said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont.

Locally-owned restaurants would be eligible for grants covering the difference in revenue generated last year and this year. It's unclear how much money Vermont or individual restaurants would receive. Though restaurants can open to 50 percent capacity and outdoor seating, the window for outdoor dining is closing fast.

"These outdoor seating spaces are seasonal -- we're going to lose these. If we continue to see restrictions on indoor dining -- which is very possible -- we're going to need programs like this to supplement ourselves economically," said Matt Birong, the owner of 3 Squares Cafe in Vergennes.

Welch says he plans to work around Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has lately been resistant to more virus federal assistance. He also says there's bipartisan support for the bill and he believes President Trump will sign it. "Everybody in this country loves their local restaurants. It's not a Republican or Democratic thing," Welch said.

But until the cash starts flowing from the Legislature or Congress, restaurants are operating in the red and the clock is ticking.

"I think that people don't really understand. They think we just cook food and people show up and eat it. It's much more than that," Chigazola-Tobin said.

This program is in addition to the federal paycheck protection program. But many restaurants said that the PPP loans would hurt more than they would help because of the repayment requirements.