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Congress needs to come to rescue of restaurants

empty-restaurant

Across the country, restaurants are disappearing. Something needs to be done by Congress, and fast.

The statistics are sobering. Since the start of the pandemic, one in six restaurants has closed their doors permanently – more than 100,000 altogether. Current projections have the industry losing $240 billion this year. And it could get worse: 85% of independent restaurants report that they may go under by year’s end without federal aid.

The job implications are enormous. With 15 million employees pre-COVID-19, the restaurant sector is the nation’s second largest private sector employer. There have been so many lost jobs that, at this time, one in four unemployed Americans are restaurant workers. This startling number does not account for the economic hit to the many businesses that count on restaurants for their livelihoods, like bakeries, florists, farmers, and more.

Sadly, Arizona has not escaped this crisis. Breadfruit & Rum Bar in Phoenix closed after being a beacon for Arizona hospitality for more than a decade, shut down not because of how the business was run, but because operating during a pandemic was financially impossible. It is one casualty of many. The Arizona Restaurant Association said at the peak of the virus, Arizona restaurants lost roughly $29 million a day.

The impact is felt by our farmers and ranchers too. The Arizona Farm Bureau Federation states that restaurant closures have driven down the prices for producers, many of whom are struggling to replace vanishing restaurant revenues.

Kathleen Merrigan

But there is some good news. Last week the U.S. House of Representatives included the bipartisan RESTAURANT Act as part of its latest stimulus bill. If passed into law, this bill would provide a $120 billion fund for restaurants, food stands, food trucks, food carts, caterers, saloon, inns, and bars who face losing their businesses due to federal and state mandated closures, dining space restrictions, and other social distancing measures. The focus of the aid is on little guys. The funding would only be available to establishments that are not publicly traded or part of a chain with 20 or more locations doing business under the same name.

It is time for the Senate to act and there is little time to do so. This bill is now pending before the Senate and needs to be passed before the end of the year. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema joined Republican Senator Roger Wicker from Mississippi and introduced a version of the RESTAURANT Act in June, and we are thankful for her support. We now need Sen. Martha McSally, so far silent on this legislation, to not only vote for it, but to understand its importance to the citizens of this state and become an active advocate for its passage.

The RESTAURANT Act is critical to the survival of so many small Arizona businesses, to our Main Streets, and to the hundreds of thousands of people – 11% of our state’s workforce — employed by Arizona restaurants before the pandemic.

We have seen the federal government come to the rescue before. To counter the impact of the 2008 recession, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with other federal departments, invested money to rebuild Main Street and secure America’s businesses, including food and farming enterprises. The effort served our nation well, and the recovery, while not as swift as we would have liked, was nevertheless steady and complete. It is time to repeat history.

Danielle Leoni, Co-owner and Executive Chef, Breadfruit & Rum Bar and Co-founder, Arizona Small Restaurant Coalition.

Kathleen Merrigan is former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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