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Restaurants could get another $40B financial lifeline from Congress

Proposal would also aid live entertainment venues and gyms, other businesses

Capitol Lounge in Washington is pictured on December 28, 2020, after closing in September of that year due to the pandemic.
Capitol Lounge in Washington is pictured on December 28, 2020, after closing in September of that year due to the pandemic. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A bipartisan Senate group is negotiating a bill to provide about $40 billion in fresh funding for pandemic-battered restaurants, Senate Small Business Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin said Wednesday.

While the details aren’t final, the Maryland Democrat told reporters that senators are considering an aid package for struggling businesses that could more than double the amount of pandemic aid funneled to restaurants, bars and others in the food service industry.

“It’s pretty urgent to get done,” Cardin told reporters. “The problem is floor time and how do you get to it, and also making sure we have adequate bipartisan support.”

The restaurant industry has been clamoring for more federal aid since burning through $28.6 billion Congress provided as part of a pandemic relief package last year. Only about a third of the restaurants that applied for aid last year received a grant under the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, leaving nearly 200,000 restaurants and bars struggling to stay afloat without aid.

More than 90,000 restaurants and bars nationwide have closed since the beginning of the pandemic and more than 86 percent of owners say they may close if they don’t receive a grant, according to a recent survey from the Independent Restaurant Coalition.

Lawmakers of both parties introduced various bills last year offering up to $120 billion for restaurant aid, but none gained enough traction to win a floor vote in either chamber. Cardin introduced a bill last summer that would have provided $48 billion in additional relief.

Cardin declined to give many details about the discussions but said $40 billion is the ballpark figure lawmakers have discussed for new restaurant aid. He said the new package would include aid to other businesses, including live entertainment venues and gyms. “We are looking beyond just restaurants,” he said, while declining to offer a price tag for the entire package.

The Community Gyms Coalition pointed out in a statement Wednesday that gyms and fitness studios haven’t gotten any federal relief, unlike restaurants and live entertainment venues.

“Small gyms are continuing to suffer disproportionately from the pandemic,” the coalition said. “We are counting on both Congress and the Biden administration to move quickly to save tens of thousands of gyms and fitness studios across the country.”

Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, Cardin’s chief Republican partner in the new effort, declined to comment Wednesday. “There’s one issue and one issue only I’m talking about this week, and that’s saving the Senate from attack on 200 years of tradition,” he said, referring to the upcoming fight over the Senate’s filibuster rule relating to voting rights legislation.

Cardin wouldn’t say what legislative vehicle would be used, whether a stand-alone bill or as part of a larger spending package. Lawmakers are considering attaching pandemic-related aid such as more money for testing, vaccine distribution and school retrofits in an omnibus fiscal 2022 appropriations bill.

“We are making a lot of progress,” Cardin said. “The question is, how will it come to the floor?”

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