Some restaurants are still struggling to emerge from the depths...

Some restaurants are still struggling to emerge from the depths of the pandemic. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Even as COVID-19 mandates fade and Long Islanders seek to return to their pre-pandemic routines, the region’s economic comeback will take time.

Long Island’s restaurants and catering halls, unsurprisingly, still need help.

Many people haven’t returned to their offices; some may never come back. That means fewer employees seeking lunch at the nearby sandwich shop and fewer catering calls for large gatherings. As inflation worries take hold, prices of food and other goods continue to rise. And the more gas prices and other costs increase, Long Islanders will have less disposable income to spend on dinners out.

For restaurants still trying to emerge from the lows of the pandemic, this is a recipe for trouble. That’s why Congress must replenish the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund.

Lobbyists are rightly seeking an additional $48 billion for the fund. It’s deeply disappointing that it seems the replenishment won’t happen in this week’s omnibus budget bill, thanks to unfortunate Republican opposition. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer should continue to prioritize it, Republicans should come on board, and together they must find a way to get it done.

In May, the restaurant fund exhausted its initial reserves before some could even apply. Only a third of applicants got help, as $28.6 billion was doled out nationwide within weeks. Thousands of Long Island businesses didn’t benefit then; the region got about $270 million, which went to about 1,100 restaurants, bars and catering halls.

In the Long Island economy, which depends upon small businesses, that barely made a dent.

Meanwhile, many local restaurants haven’t seen the comeback they’d hoped for — and they need more help. Owners of some restaurants have told Newsday they need hundreds of thousands of dollars to stay afloat. Some tried unsuccessfully to apply during the first round of funding.

Now, they need another shot.

But for them to get a slice of the pie, federal officials also have to simplify the application process and make it fairer. That means ensuring far more businesses get some money this time around. In May, 40 Long Island establishments received more than $1 million each, while many others didn’t receive a dime. Federal officials should establish criteria that benefit a larger percentage of applicants and that, as much as possible, prioritize businesses that did not get help the first time.

It’ll be important to make sure the money gets into the right hands. The program should have checks and balances, so officials can track how money is used and whether businesses that receive federal funds remain open and grow.

But first, Congress must take action. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Republicans and Democrats alike should commit to boosting the nation’s broad economic recovery. Supporting small businesses, especially restaurants, has to be part of that effort.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.