As long-stalled talks in Washington made progress toward a second round of national COVID-19 relief on Wednesday, minority Republicans in Connecticut’s House of Representatives proposed a $50 million aid package targeting the state’s hard-hit restaurant and bar industry.
The plan would offer $5,000 to $25,000 grants for ailing business owners.
The GOP caucus also called for a year-long suspension of alcohol and food licensing fees; a 90-day moratorium on the payment of local property taxes for the hard-hit businesses; and a new low-interest loan program through the state development agency.
Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association said Wednesday that a recent estimate that 600 independent bars and restaurants have closed during the pandemic has likely increased by hundreds, underscoring the industry’s fight to survive.
Incoming House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora of North Branford, said during a virtual news conference that the GOP focus is on local, non-chain restaurants that are among the businesses that have suffered the most during the nine-month pandemic.
“Through no fault of their own, they’re probably the most-dramatically impacted industries that have really felt the punch of this virus going all the way back to March,” said Candelora who believes that about $130 million in remaining relief from the $1.4 billion the state received earlier in the year, could be available. “Those impacts have been felt all the way through spring, summer and fall, and now that we’re in our second wave, they have been dramatically impacted.”
The last week, when cold weather finally arrived, has underscored the plight of restaurants, he said, stressing that the amount of individual grants could be tied to individual sales-tax revenues generated by eateries and bars. In particular, those restaurants without take-out windows need help. Chain restaurants would not be part of the package.
“Some of our mom-and-pop stores in Main Street have not been able to supply food that way, so they felt the hit, so we want to open up a program for them specifically,” Candelora said. “We are talking about the small restaurants that are really the heart of our community,” addes state Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, the incoming ranking member of the legislative Finance Committee when the General Assembly meets on Jan. 6.
Incoming Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said after Candelora’s early-afternoon news conference that he understands that Gov. Ned Lamont is sympathetic to the needs of the bars and restaurants and that the governor soon plans some kind of related initiative. “This is the kind of bipartisan thing that we can all agree on,” Ritter said in a phone interview.
Bars that don’t serve meals have remained closed throughout the pandemic. Restaurants are allowed to seat customers at 50 percent capacity, but with the outdoor dining season over and new coronavirus cases near record highs, few are even close to operating at half capacity, and reservations are way down, Dolch said.
Earlier this fall, the state Department of Economic and Community Development made $50 million available in the form of $5,000 grants to 10,000 small businesses, including but not exclusively restaurants and bars. Dolch and others called that a good step but not adequate.
Gov. Ned Lamont said during his daily news briefing on Wednesday that it appears that a national aid deal may finally emerge this week. The briefing started about 25 minutes late because the governor had been on a conference call among fellow governors and President-elect Joe Biden, who predicted that the final bill may be agreed upon on Thursday.
“They are going to make good progress on this with the exception of state and local aid,” Lamont said. He said that $45 million in pandemic relief will be released soon to cities and towns.
“We’re sending out $5,000 checks to 10,000 of the smallest businesses, those that probably did not get in line for the PPP program,” said Lamont, stressing that another $25 million for larger companies, including restaurants, will be a potential bridge to the next round of federal support to arrive early next month.
“I think we’re all on the same path, to tell you the truth,” Lamont said in reaction to the GOP proposal.
Cheeseman said that the governor’s current grant program isn’t enough money, compared to programs in Massachusetts, which has given grants of up to $75,000. Rhode Island offered up to $30,000. “Five thousand dollars is not going to help you survive,” she said. “Five thousand dollars may just pick up one month’s rent. Our restaurants certainly need more significant levels of support. And I hope if there is no local or state aid in this package coming out of Washington that this is not the last package.”
Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, the incoming co-chairman of the tax-writing Finance, Revenue & Bonding Committee, took to social media after Candelora’s news conference to say that the state response depends a lot on what kind of legislation emerges from Congress, where a second round of pandemic relief has stalled for months.
“Once it’s clear what is (and is not) in fed bill we will be in a much better position to act and we should quickly because the clock is ticking,” Scanlon tweeted at about 2 p.m.
Dolch quoted national restaurant analysts as estimating that nationwide, 110,000 restaurants have gone out of business. “We are taking it on the chin,” he said. “I do think we are pushing closer to 800 operations have shut down since last time we ran the numbers.”
Dolch said that many restaurateurs are staying open out of hopes that a second pandemic relief bill can emerge from Congress. “We’re bleeding money every day,” he said
Candelora said he has not focused too much on the back-and-forth among majority Democrats in the U.S. House, majority Republicans in the U.S. Senate and President Donald Trump.