After months of political jockeying, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund is officially dead. On Thursday, the Senate voted down the Small Business COVID Relief Act of 2022, which would’ve added $40 billion in relief for the thousands of restaurant owners across the country still struggling after shutdowns, staffing shortages, and more operational woes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Put simply, restaurateurs can be all but assured that no more assistance is on the way from the federal government.
The vote on the Act, co-sponsored by Senators Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) and Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), wasn’t even close — it failed 52 to 43, much to the dismay of lobbying groups like the Independent Restaurant Coalition and the National Restaurant Association. “Neighborhood restaurants nationwide have held out hope for this program, selling their homes, cashing out retirement funds, or taking personal loans in an effort to keep their employees working and their doors open,” IRC president Erika Polmar said in a statement. National Restaurant Association president Michelle Korsmo echoed those sentiments, saying that today’s vote will “result in more economic hardships for the families and communities across the country that rely on the restaurant industry.”
An estimated 90,000 restaurants have already closed their doors during the pandemic, a number that’s only expected to rise. Lobbying groups estimate stark consequences for restaurants in the coming months without additional federal aid. The Independent Restaurant Council estimates that more than half of the 177,300 independent establishments waiting on RRF grants will close without that additional aid. And, of course, when those restaurants close, thousands of people will lose their jobs, communities will lose their favorite establishments, and business owners will be left in untold debt after trying to keep the doors open for so long.
The writing has been on the wall for the RRF’s death knell for months. In March, additional COVID relief dollars didn’t make it into Congress’s omnibus spending bill after Republicans opposed its inclusion. But even Democrats didn’t seem particularly serious about much — if any — additional aid for restaurants. In January, a Biden administration official hinted that there might be “something small” in terms of an aid package, which far was from confidence-inspiring. Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren was one of only a few lawmakers in any party to argue that restaurants be “prioritized” in any upcoming aid bills.
Presumably, most of the independent restaurateurs across the country weren’t holding their breath and waiting for the federal government to step in and save them, but what comes next could be particularly bleak, even for establishments that have been successful despite making it through the darkest days of the pandemic. Loans will eventually come due, landlords are already asking for their back rent, and diners’ budgets are feeling especially pinched thanks to rising inflation. Food costs are also on the rise, labor is (rightfully) more expensive than ever, and that means that even the most beloved establishments, places that actually make money during more “normal” times, could be at the risk of closing their doors.