A loosening of pandemic restrictions and a large federal aid package could represent a turning point for Connecticut restaurants according to Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association.
“For us, to get a specific restaurant fund … this is huge, it’s a big deal,” Dolch told CT Examiner at a press conference in Manchester on Thursday.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law on March 11, includes a “Restaurant Revitalization Fund” of $28.6 billion.
As written, the legislation will compensate restaurants for the full amount of business losses in 2020 when compared to 2019 revenue. Any prior Paycheck Protection Program loans would be deducted from the new federal aid.
Dolch said that the critical piece of this new grant was that it covered all operating losses, rather than focusing on payroll, like the Paycheck Protection Program. He said that the PPP loans covered only about five-and-a-half months of payroll expenses for most restaurants who received them.
The plan sets aside $5 billion for businesses that made $500,000 or less in gross receipts in 2020. It also prioritizes women, minority, and veteran-owned businesses and socially or economically disadvantaged businesses for the first 21 days that the grants are available.
According to Gov. Ned Lamont, state officials don’t yet know how much of the funding Connecticut will receive, but that he assumes the state will receive about 1 percent of the $28.6 billion, or around $280 million.
Keith Beaulieu, the owner of The Main Pub in Manchester, told CT Examiner that he doesn’t think the funding put aside in the federal legislation will be enough to meet the demand.
Beaulieu said that even after receiving two PPP grants, he would still be eligible for “upwards of a couple hundred dollars” through the rescue plan. And, he added, they were one of the smaller restaurants, with about 30 employees.
He said he expects that Congress will have to make adjustments to the amount of lost revenue that restaurants can receive through the new federal legislation.
Shiran Nicholson, founder of the Connecticut Events Industry Coalition, said that while the legislation might help some caterers, he wished there was a package specifically targeted toward events venues. He said he knew of venues that were operating at a loss of between 70 and 90 percent of their business.
“We’re really coming out of the dark,” he said. “We need help, big time.”
Capacity and consumer confidence
Lamont announced two weeks ago that restaurants would be allowed to open to full capacity on March 19. But that relaxation of restrictions would still require that patrons maintain six feet of distance between tables, meaning that most restaurants would still be open only on a limited basis.
“There’s not probably a restaurant that is going to get to 100 percent,” said Dolch, adding that he estimates that under these guidelines, most restaurants will be able to open to 65 percent capacity or 70 percent at most.
But Dolch said his focus is less on reaching full capacity than on convincing patrons that it’s safe to dine-in.
Beaulieu said he plans to keep The Main Pub open at 50 percent capacity. He’s put up plexiglass shields at the bar and between tables and is careful about maintaining social distancing, he said.
He said during the press conference that the sanitation measures have gone a long way toward making sure that his employees feel comfortable coming back to work.
“We took it very seriously in regards to health checks, temperature, sanitation, distancing, mask wearing, cleanliness,” he said.
Given that most restaurant employees tend to be younger, the majority are not yet eligible for a vaccination under Connecticut’s age-based rollout. Beaulieu said that none of his 30 employees have been vaccinated yet. Dan Meiser, who serves as chair of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, and owns four restaurants in Mystic, said that out of his 165 employees, so far just three had been vaccinated.
Dolch said at the press conference that he believed that as more people get vaccinated, more people will feel comfortable eating indoors. He also said that the warmer weather will mean that outdoor dining will be possible again.
Still, Dolch said he expects that a full recovery for restaurants will take anywhere from three to five years.
Nicholson said that there are signs that people might be ready to throw big events again.
“Cancellations are slowing down,” he said. “I see it coming back a little bit. Grandparents have been vaccinated. Parents have been vaccinated.”
But he agreed that it will take awhile to get back to normal. Nicholson said that the majority of their clients have delayed big events until 2022 and 2023.
“I think it’s going to be a slower crawl back to a full recovery,” he said.