Just a fraction of Connecticut restaurants got help from a federal fund before it was depleted. Congress may add $60 billion more

·3 min read

The pandemic-scarred restaurant industry was optimistic Thursday as a bipartisan bill was introduced in Congress to add $60 billion to the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. The fund, a $28.6 billion kitty established in March, has received requests for $75 billion in funding from restaurants nationwide.

Established as part of the American Rescue Plan, the fund has been a source of both hope and frustration for embattled restaurateurs since applications opened on May 3. More than 362,000 requests for funding were submitted nationwide in three weeks. The program was intended to provide restaurants with grants equal to their pandemic-related revenue losses.

With priority going to women-, minority- and veteran-owned dining businesses, as well as people who submitted their requests earliest, many were left out in the cold.

“I worry that if they don’t replenish it, they’re really picking winners and losers based on how quickly they got their application in. I don’t know if that’s how we should be judging the allocation of federal dollars to help businesses,” said Scott Dolch, executive director of Connecticut Restaurant Association.

Dolch said many Connecticut restaurateurs who got funding from the RRF don’t want to talk publicly about it, because they sympathize with their fellow restaurateurs who didn’t get funding and don’t want to appear insensitive.

He added there was one silver lining to the inadequacy of the $28.6 allocation compared to the need. “It showed the actual truth behind the loss of numbers and what the number needed to be,” Dolch said.

National Restaurant Association Executive Vice President of Public Affairs Sean Kennedy said in a news release that COVID-19 shutdowns cost the nation’s dining industry $290 billion in sales and led to the closure of 90,000 restaurants and the loss of 1.5 million jobs. The release added that consumer spending in restaurants in April still was $1.4 billion below pre-pandemic levels.

In Connecticut, Dolch said, more than 600 restaurants closed permanently.

“When the RRF portal closed in May, small business restaurant owners all wanted to know ‘what’s next’ for their pending applications. The introduction of this additional $60 billion in funding not only answers that question but proves once again that Congress understands and supports the food service industry,” Kennedy said in the statement.

The Restaurant Revitalization Fund Replenishment Act of 2021 was co-sponsored by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) and Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) and Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R- Pennsylvania).

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a proponent of the legislation, said the sooner it is passed, the better for the state’s and nation’s economy.

“Things are looking better. The jobs reports are encouraging. But it’s an inflection point. it’s not a guaranteed trajectory,” Blumenthal said. “We’re beginning to launch. The economy will fall back if we don’t get that momentum and speed and lift, like an airplane.”

Kennedy added, “For much of the country, life is starting to feel close to normal. While restaurants are optimistic about this trend, we’re still in the early days of rebuilding and are far from recovery … To make sure we don’t lose our rebuilding momentum, we will continue to focus on creating access to the tools the industry needs.”

Susan Dunne can be reached at sdunne@courant.com.