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Restaurant owners, lawmakers call for renewed federal COVID relief

The Restaurant Revitalization Fund was a lifeline for thousands of businesses, but nearly two thirds of the applicants were left hanging when the funding ran out.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Owners from restaurants around the country, among them Southeast Portland's Reel M Inn tavern, joined a virtual panel hosted by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) on Tuesday to call for a fresh infusion of federal dollars for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.

It's a message that Blumenauer has been steadily hammering in recent months as more states repeal their COVID restrictions and the hospitality industry struggles to regain its footing.

The fund provided a lifeline for more than 100,000 restaurants when it debuted last year, Blumenauer said, but the $28.6 billion allocated to the program was only enough to grant about a third of the applications, leaving almost 177,000 restaurants without support.

RELATED: Struggling amid pandemic surge, Washington restaurant owners seek more federal funding

All of the owners on the panel were from restaurants that met the qualifications for the program and applied last year, only to be turned down when the funding ran out.

Reel M Inn managed to reopen last year after a prolonged shutdown, but without the relief funding, co-owner Alex Briggs said the business is being crushed by debts incurred during the past two years and is "one equipment failure away" from collapsing. Which is a far cry from where they were before the pandemic hit.

"In the two years of ownership, we had nearly doubled our sales and were debit free- our hard work was paying off and we were living the American dream," said Briggs. He was even considering buying a new location.

Then, Briggs said on March 16, 2020, his nightmare began. He had to shut his doors and lay off his entire staff.

“We are on the brink of ruin through no fault of our own," he said.

The tavern did receive a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, he said, but it was only enough to fund operations for about a month. The RRF grant was set to provide another $1.2 million, but it never came through.

Other owners shared similar stories of banking on the promise of revitalization funding, only to have it snatched away. Some of their restaurants now find themselves having to compete with neighbors who were lucky enough to get their applications granted, leaving them at a disadvantage.

RELATED: Restaurants push for more federal relief amid concerns over omicron variant

“The partial funding of the RRF program created a massive distortion in the marketplace," said Jim Woods of San Francisco-based brewpub chain Woods Beer & Wine.

Blumenauer and a few other Democratic representatives on the call pledged to keep working to secure renewed funding for the program, but they largely put the onus on the U.S. Senate to pass the necessary legislation. 

A bill to renew the funding would need support from at least 10 Republican senators to overcome a filibuster and Blumenauer estimated that he and his fellow proponents could only count on about six coming on board so far.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-San Antonio) added that a standalone vote on RRF funding was unlikely, and the only possible path to passing it would likely be as part of a larger package.

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