Vermont restaurants worry stimulus relief won't go far enough

Published: Jun. 17, 2020 at 5:28 PM EDT
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Vermont lawmakers are nearing completion on a $170 million stimulus package to keep businesses hardest hit by the coronavirus afloat. But even with the relief, some say the money will only go so far. Our Calvin Cutler found out how Vermont restaurant owners are feeling.

In the center of Waterbury, normally several restaurants, pubs and bars thrive. Now, even though many can open for some indoor and outdoor seating, there's still a sense of uncertainty about what the future will bring.

They say money from Montpelier and Washington will help but it will only go so far until they can get back to full capacity.

Vermont's hospitality sector continues to suffer because of COVID-19 and its restrictions.

"We didn't really understand how impactful this was going to be until it came pretty heavy and fast. All three restaurants have been closed since March," said Mark Frier who owns three restaurants.

Mark Frier owns the Resovoir in Waterbury along with the Bench and Tres Amigos in Stowe. All three are staying closed because they can't use enough of their seating to make reopening worthwhile.

Gov. Phil Scott and the Legislature are working on tens of millions of dollars of aid paid for by the federal CARES Act.

The governor says the state needs to get the money out the door as soon as possible to keep thousands of people on the job and off unemployment.

"We need to fix the fractured foundation that we have right now that we can see and these businesses that provide jobs to hundreds of

thousands of Vermonters," said Scott, R-Vermont.

Though the cash infusion will be a big help, many say it won't go far enough.

Right now, the state's latest guidance allows for outdoor dining and some indoor seating. Frier says with the current rules, his restaurants aren't sustainable. He's waiting for the day he can hire back all of his 130 employees and be able to keep them.

"We need a certain capacity to try to even be viable or profitable, so we've decided to remain closed," Frier explained.

On top of the capacity issues, many restaurants are also faced with challenges of interstate travel restrictions.

"We decided to just wait and hope that some of those restrictions will change as the state decides it's safe to let tourists back," Frier said.

Scott acknowledges the challenges his restrictions place on businesses but says the latest stimulus package is all about keeping struggling restaurants on life support.

"If they don't survive then we have this systemic unemployment gap that we'll see in the future leading to other issues," the governor said.

The governor originally called for $250 million in small business stimulus spending but he says he will sign the Legislature's $170 million plan when it hits his desk in the coming days.