Welch joins bipartisan push for federal ‘lifeline’ for local restaurants

Rep. Peter Welch speaks at a press conference Monday on Church Street in Burlington, where he announced a bipartisan push for a federal fund to support local restaurants. Photo by Sawyer Loftus/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — Vermont Congressman Peter Welch joined a bipartisan push Monday for legislation that would create a multi-billion dollar money pot for struggling local restaurants across the country. 

Welch said the legislation — called the “Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed to Survive,” or “RESTAURANTS Act of 2020” — is meant to help small struggling restaurants that have been hit particularly hard by Covid-19 shutdown measures. 

“This act, equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, is an economic plan that has as its goal, giving our restaurants, small restaurants, an even shot at surviving the shutdown and coming out on the other side,” Welch said. 

The restaurant industry is the country’s second-largest private employer with 15.6 million workers. Industry analysts say larger chains are equipped to survive, but warn that many of the smaller local restaurants won’t reopen after the pandemic. 

Welch unveiled the new legislation on Church Street, flanked by Sue Bette, the owner of Blue Bird Barbeque, Cara Chigazola Tobin, chef and co-owner of Honey Road, and state Rep. Matt Birong, D-Vergennes, who is the chef and owner of 3 Squares Café.

The bill, which was officially introduced to the House on June 18, is a bipartisan effort led by U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. In the Senate, the legislation was introduced by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Welch said the bill if signed into law would create a $120 billion fund from which small restaurant owners could apply for aid. 

“And that would be available to small restaurants, not to chain restaurants, but small restaurants, like Bluebird Cafe, like Honey Road and 3 Squares and restaurants here on Church Street in Burlington,” Welch said. “To have that economic lifeline they need in order to survive.” 

Chigazola Tobin, of Honey Road, said when she first opened her restaurant, she never imagined a global pandemic would be the reason she had to close. 

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“When I opened a restaurant I said to myself, or other people would ask me ‘Who do you want to come to your restaurant?’ And I said, ‘Everybody,’” Tobin said. “And right now it’s nobody and for that to be happening and not see a way out of that, it’s heartbreaking.” 

Tobin said the impact was also far more personal. “I have two kids that I’m going home to every day and wondering, ‘How are we going to get out of this,’ and we need something like this restaurant act,” she said. 

Welch said he’s optimistic that the bill will pass. “The fact is, everybody in this country loves their local restaurants, everybody, it’s not a Republican/Democratic thing,” Welch said. “It’s an opportunity for us to be united in an effort to revive our local communities and that’s where I get some hope that we’ll get this done.” 

If passed as is, the bill would give eligibility to restaurants, bars and caterers that are not publicly traded or part of a chain with 20 or more locations under the same name. 

The program itself will be run by the Department of the Treasury and the grants made available will cover the differences between revenues from 2019 and projected revenues through 2020, according to the legislation. 

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Sawyer Loftus

About Sawyer

Sawyer Loftus will be a senior this fall at the University of Vermont, where he is pursuing a degree in history with a minor in public communication. He has been involved with the Vermont Cynic, UVM’s independent student newspaper, since his freshman year. This past year, he was news and sports editor, and will become editor-in-chief in August. Sawyer grew up in Colchester and previously interned at Vermont Public Radio, where he worked on "All Things Considered." He also worked at the Burlington Free Press, where he covered a variety of topics with words and multimedia.
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