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Oregon congressman proposes $120 billion restaurant relief bill

Representative Earl Blumenauer introduced the bill in June and says it will be part of the newest recovery package.

PORTLAND, Oregon — Independent restaurants are hurting.

Only six months into the pandemic, a survey released in mid-September from the National Restaurant Association says that one in six restaurants in the United States are closed long-term or permanently. 

That's around 100,000 restaurants.

If the current rate of closures persists, around 85% of restaurants in Oregon could close by the end of 2020. That's roughly 7,000 according to the Independent Restaurant Coalition.

"Every week we try to do something new," said Peter Cho, owner, operator and executive chef of Han Oak. "Every week we try to change how we support our staff, and every week we've seen a decline in our sales."

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Under the state's reopening plan, restaurants in Oregon can seat up to 100 people inside including staff, but with social distancing mandates, the amount a restaurant can seat is significantly lower.

A restaurant makes about 10% profit off of daily sales. The other 90% supports staff wages and other operating costs.

"I've talked to so many of my coworkers, colleagues out in the community and they're maybe doing 10%, 15%, 25% of past revenue," said Naomi Pomeroy, owner of Beast, a restaurant in northeast Portland.

In June, Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer introduced the RESTAURANTS Act, or "Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed To Survive Act of 2020." 

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"We've see too many restaurants already close," Blumenauer said. "The evidence is that if there isn't something that isn't done to provide support we could see up to 85% close permanently by the end of the year."

The RESTAURANTS Act of 2020 will create grants using $120 billion in funding to help restaurants stay afloat. It will prioritize marginalized and under represented communities with a focus on women, minorities and veterans.

A restaurant will be eligible for a grant if they have under 20 locations and make less than $1.5 million in annual sales.

"I think the importance of saving independent restaurants is so much beyond choice of where we're gonna eat dinner," Pomeroy says. "What it comes down to is independent restaurants in America employ over 11 million people."

At the height of the closures due to the pandemic, over 5.5 million employees were laid off. Blumenauer says that number is cut in half now.

"What our legislation would do is guarantee them as much money as they made last year," Blumenauer said. "The difference in what they make this year and made last year would be a grant."

According to the bill, the grant money could be used to pay: "Payroll costs; payments of principal or interest on any mortgage obligation; rent payments, including rent under a lease agreement; utilities; maintenance, including construction to accommodate outdoor seating; supplies, including protective equipment and cleaning materials; food and beverage; debt obligations to suppliers that were incurred before the covered period; and any other expenses that the Secretary (Steve Mnuchin) determines to be essential to maintaining the eligible entity."

Blumenauer's bill has bipartisan support. There is a similar bill in the Senate.

Blumenauer says the RESTAURANTS Act would be included with the latest recovery bill and it will come to a vote on October 1.

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