HARTFORD – The Connecticut Restaurant Association is calling for Congress to set aside additional funding to support the restaurants that are struggling under pandemic-related debt and did not receive federal support last year.
Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, said at a press conference on Monday at the now-shuttered Carbone’s Ristorante, that the Restaurant Revitalization Fund passed by Congress in March delivered $301 million to about 1,3000 restaurants in Connecticut, but a larger number – slightly more than 2,0000 restaurants – did not receive any of that aid.
“A third of our restaurants were supported through this program, and two-thirds were not,” said Dolch.
According to Dolch, Connecticut needed an additional $489 million to provide for the restaurants that did not receive funding through the original legislation.
Dolch said the aid was not a matter of helping restaurants cope with daily expenses — but to help owners pay down debt incurred since the start of the pandemic.
“I’ve had calls from restaurateurs telling me they had to take out a loan, a $200,000 loan. They owe $5,000 for the next 30 years and they’re 60 years old. And they’re like, that’s the only way I could stay open,” said Dolch.
Dolch told CT Examiner that while the Omicron variant hadn’t had as negative of an effect on restaurants as the Delta variant, the timing posed an added challenge.
“The wintertime in restaurants in Connecticut is always a challenge,” said Dolch, explaining that a lack of tourists, the inability to offer outdoor dining and the threat of bad weather were all causing difficulties for restaurant owners.
Senator Richard Blumenthal said during the press conference that he is co-sponsoring a bill that could set aside an additional $60 billion for restaurants and other food-related businesses. The bill has 42 cosponsors in the Senate, including six Republicans.
Blumenthal said during the press conference that restaurants were grappling with not just the ongoing COVID pandemic, but also the rising cost of food and a shortage of workers in the industry.
“The cost of food alone is 14 percent higher. Inflation is hitting restaurants, but so are the restrictions on people coming together and the feelings of insecurity,” said Blumenthal.
Vinny Carbone, who owns two other restaurants in the Hartford area, said he had to close the Hartford location because of the pandemic. He said the location had been open for 85 years, until it closed in March 2020.
“We weathered World War II,” said Carbone. “When the COVID first hit, I asked my dad, ‘What did grandpa do in World War II?’ He goes, ‘We never had to close.’”
A recent survey released by the National Restaurant Association estimated that replenishing the federal fund would save 18,000 jobs in Connecticut. The survey also found that half of the restaurants that did not receive federal funding last year reported that they would most likely go out of business without financial help.
Last week the online reservation service OpenTable reported that Connecticut had enjoyed 24 percent growth in the number of seated diners in the first two weeks of January 2022 compared to the same time period in 2019.
But Dolch said he would be cautious about those figures, given the short time period of comparison and a variety of other factors, like the weather in 2019, that might have had an effect on the numbers.
OpenTable also reported that currently, between 85 and 90 percent of restaurants surveyed are taking reservations — up from about 75 percent in early January and around 80 percent through the month of November.
Besides federal aid, Dolch said that there are other steps that local and state officials can take to help, including using American Rescue Plan dollars to help struggling businesses.
“The ARPA funds that the mayor’s intent and first selectman have is something I’m very intrigued by. How are they helping hospitality businesses? What are they doing?” he said
Dolch also said the state legislature could put in place measures that would help businesses, including continued outdoor dining, alcohol to-go and tax remittances.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to make clear that more than 2000 restaurants did not receive aid