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Washington restaurant owners testify about omicron’s toll as Cantwell tells them she’s fighting for more aid money

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 25, 2022

WASHINGTON – When the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the restaurant industry nearly two years ago, Congress came to the rescue with billions in aid. But with those funds dried up amid a surge in cases driven by the omicron variant, a bipartisan group of senators is working to extend restaurants another lifeline.

During a virtual event Tuesday, Sen. Maria Cantwell – the Democratic chair of the Senate Commerce Committee – told Washington restaurant owners she is working with several Republicans and Democrats to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, whose initial $28.6 billion of aid ran out in May .

“The omicron variant of the COVID pandemic is just one more wave of pressure on our local restaurants, which are such great employers for our community,” Cantwell said. “The good news is there’s a bipartisan effort … to get this legislation included in any of the must-pass bills that we need to do in the next couple of months.”

During the first six months of the pandemic, about 121 restaurants in Spokane County permanently closed. Among them were some locally owned favorites, including Wolffy’s Hamburgers and Geno’s near Gonzaga University, Rocky Rococo downtown, and a Tomato Street restaurant.

The event came a day after the National Restaurant Association asked Congress to refill the fund, citing an in-house survey that found 88% of U.S. restaurants have seen a decline in customer demand due to the highly infectious omicron variant.

Lisa Emery, owner of the Swinging Doors, described how the Spokane sports bar used aid Congress provided through the Paycheck Protection Program in 2020 to keep employees on the payroll and install a new air filtration system. But like more than half of Washington restaurants, the Swinging Doors didn’t receive a grant from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund before it dried up.

“Now, faced with this omicron variant, we also have staff that are rotating in and out because they’re sick and we want them to stay home, but we are short-staffed,” Emery said during the event. “We have customers staying home again because they’re scared of the variant.

“We thought that 2022 was going to be the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel, and – not so much.”

One of the senators leading talks on the new legislation, Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland, said Jan. 12 the new legislation could provide as much as $40 billion to refill the relief fund.

It’s unclear whether Congress could pass a standalone bill to fund the program. The money could also be authorized as part of broader must-pass legislation, such as the omnibus spending bill lawmakers need to pass before federal funding runs out Feb. 18.

The Restaurant Revitalization Fund was passed in March as part of a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill Democrats passed over unanimous GOP opposition, but Republicans objected to other provisions in that legislation and have signaled they may support a narrower restaurant relief bill.

“Things really did take a turn for the worse, and we’re running out of money,” said Steve Valenta, owner of the Mighty Bowl in Vancouver, Washington. “It’s worked, but we need more because we’re out.”

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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