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COVID-19 Stimulus Disappoints Chicago Restaurants and Workers

Many owners believe restaurants and bars will continue to close without additional relief this winter, leaving millions more out of work 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was a target for many in Chicago’s service industry.
Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

On Sunday night, news broke that Congress had reached a stimulus agreement, giving restaurant owners another round of Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loans and workers $600 checks. That’s half the amount restaurants were given over the spring, when $1,200 checks were issued.

Restaurant owners locally and across the country expressed disappointment in the news, including the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a national group whose board includes Boka Restaurant Group’s Kevin Boehm. They said they’re hopeful this package is an appetizer that “will buy time for Congress to negotiate a more robust plan.” The coalition prefers a package closer to the RESTAURANTS Act, a proposal the House passed in October that would have directed $120 billion into the restaurant industry.

“We are grateful to many champions in the House and Senate who fought for those changes,” a coalition news release states. “But make no mistake: independent restaurants and bars will continue to close without additional relief this winter, leaving millions more out of work.”

Others weren’t so diplomatic in wanting a restaurant-specific solution. As Brian Mita, the owner of Izakaya Mita in Bucktown writes on social media: “PPP is not restaurant relief. Did you see how they fucked it up the first time?”

Restaurant workers don’t think the package goes far enough. A smattering of memes appeared on social media in reaction, comparing Congress’s efforts to holding a pizza party for industry members or handing out department store gift cards. Many industry members directed anger at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican spearheaded efforts opposing paying workers $1,200 checks.

Earlier this month, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth vowed to a group of the state’s restaurant owners that her colleagues would approve a COVID-19 relief package to help the hospitality industry.

“I’m not leaving town until we get federal relief out the door,” Duckworth said during a virtual town hall meeting held on December 11.

Speakers including Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill) and Erick Williams (Virtue) were inspired by the senator’s optimism during the meeting. Concerns still remain from Sheldrick Holmes, who operates Grail Cafe, which opened in January 2020. He left the finance world to enter the restaurant world, but after this year, he jokes that he leave the restaurant industry to become a professional grant writer. He’s fatigued after answering the same questions over and over again on grant and loan applications.

“I’m like, did Boeing have to answer their questions when they got their money immediately?” Holmes says.

Newer restaurants, like Grail Cafe, have struggled finding aid because they can’t demonstrate to lenders that they’ve lost money year over year. If the business wasn’t in existence, there’s no ledger to submit. That flaw appears to remain in the new relief package.

Another eligibility question posted to Duckworth in the meeting came from Jeff Lawler, the owner of 55-year-old Geja’s Cafe in Lincoln Park. Lawler is proud of adhering to COVID-19 safety regulations, including keep his dining room closed. But recent reports of scofflaws — including at Ann Sather, the restaurant belonging to Ald. (44th Ward) Tom Tunney — have frustrated Lawler. He asks if restaurants that have kept their doors closed will be on the same footing to receive funds compared to those who ignored governmental orders.

“I just feel those people will be applying for the relief just as I am applying,” Lawler says. “The difference is that they’ve had revenue on all of November.”

Ann Sather received $357,500 in PPP funds in April, according to government data released earlier this month. Lawler says hearing that the alderman was skirting rules was both disappointing and frustrating.

In a newsletter sent to his constituents last week, Tunney says a hearing is scheduled for February. That’s when the city could fine Ann Sather up to $10,500: “Since the case will not be heard until February, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time,” the newsletter reads.

Eater Chicago asked a Duckworth spokesperson for an answer to Lawler’s question. Duckworth’s camp provided this statement:

Senator Duckworth encourages every restaurant and small business to comply fully with the state and local orders on safe operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Failures to comply with those orders should be reported and investigated.

Senator Duckworth wants every small business that is struggling and has played by the rules to receive relief. She supports fully funding the PPP program so no businesses are left behind. In addition, the House-passed HEROES 2.0, which Senator Duckworth supports, would direct a second round of relief to small businesses, like restaurants, that can demonstrate substantial revenue losses from COVID-19. One of Senator Duckworth’s top priorities is to get relief to the hardest-hit businesses swiftly, and she believes any final compromise must meet that test.

  • Congress has finally reached a deal on coronavirus stimulus [Vox]
  • The New Bipartisan Stimulus Proposal Really Sucks for Restaurants [Eater]
  • What Is the RESTAURANTS Act — and Can It Really Save the Hospitality Industry? [Grub Street]
  • Congress passed a short-term funding bill, giving itself two more days to negotiate stimulus [Vox]
  • Infamous River West Dive Bar Openly Defies Pandemic Rules With Indoor Service [Eater Chicago]
  • Alderman Tom Tunney’s Newsletter [Official Website]
  • Alderman Tom Tunney’s Chicago Restaurant Faces $10,500 in Fines as Owners Rage About His Hypocrisy [Eater Chicago]