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$120B aid bill needed to help restaurants survive, lawmakers say

Restaurateur Anthony Scotto, shown at Blackstone Steakhouse in

Restaurateur Anthony Scotto, shown at Blackstone Steakhouse in Melville, said the catering business is hurting even more than restaurants. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Restaurants and catering halls on Long Island and across the country will need "powerful" government aid to survive, lawmakers said Monday at a Zoom town hall to introduce details of a bill that would offer $120 billion in grants to the industry. 

The Island's 8,000 restaurants employ about 100,000 people and have been among the businesses hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, said Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove). “Not only because not everybody can do outdoor dining, not only because indoor dining has been reduced dramatically, but because people just don’t feel comfortable yet to go out in public and go to these places,” said Suozzi, who hosted the meeting.

The Real Economic Support that Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed to Survive (RESTAURANTS) Act of 2020, introduced last month  by fellow Democrat Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, is designed to help independent restaurants. National chain restaurants would not be eligible.

Blumenaur put the grim numbers in a national perspective: “Nationwide independent restaurants employ more than 11 million people and in April alone, 5.5 million lost their jobs, accounting for 27% of total job losses.” he said. "Unless we do something extremely powerful,” up to 85% might close before the end of the year.

Long Island restaurateur Anthony Scotto, who owns six restaurants, four catering halls and a hotel, said the catering business is hurting the most. His said his hotel, Woodbury's Inn at Fox Hollow, was at around 25% to 30% occupancy and that the restaurants were doing the best. But he hastened to add that, with social distancing effectively wiping out the bar scene, profits were much lower than even partial capacity and outdoor dining would normally generate. Our bars are completely shut down,” he said.   

Scotto noted that while across the nation, “most catering is done in hotels, on Long island, for some reason, it’s done mostly in catering houses.” And when catering shuts down, “you have to take into consideration all the people that get involved in a wedding” who no longer have work: florists, photographers, musicians, limousine services, hair salons, pastry shops, tuxedo shops and more.

Micky King, director of the New York Restaurant Association and president of the catering venue Antun’s of Queens Village spoke to the necessity of an aid package that was tailored to what he said was the country’s second largest employment sector. “I wanted to cry that airlines got bailed out and we didn’t,” he said.

The bill defines independent restaurants as “food service or drinking establishments, including caterers, that are not publicly traded or part of a chain with 20 or more locations doing business under the same name. “ For the first two weeks, funds would only be made available to restaurants with annual revenues of $1.5 million or less.

The amounts of the individual grants would be the difference between a business’s 2019 revenues and its projected 2020 revenues, excluding any Paycheck Protection Program loan funds that were not paid back.

Congress and the White House this week are negotiating the contents of the next COVID-19 aid bill. The Blumenaur bill has 123 co-sponsors in the House, including two Republicans, Long Island’s Peter King and Brian Fitzpatarick of Pennsylvania. A similar bill making its way through the Senate has bipartisan support, with  Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), among its backers.