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Bipartisan group of lawmakers push for billions in additional aid for Restaurant Revitalization Fund

A federal fund to help restaurants and bars slammed by the coronavirus pandemic got three times as many requests as it had money to support. Now, a group of lawmakers wants to refill the pot with an additional $60 billion in COVID relief money. 

The Restaurant Revitalization Fund, part of the American Rescue Plan passed in March, provided $28.6 billion for businesses impacted by the pandemic. But more than 362,000 eligible businesses ended up applying for nearly $75 billion in assistance through the program during the program's window for applications — less than a month.

A group of lawmakers is calling for more than double the fund's original amount to replenish it, which Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona said will help fuel a full economic recovery. The lawmakers say the funding would not only cover the outstanding existing applications for the relief program, but also allow the Small Business Administration to continue outreach to businesses affected by the pandemic. 

"While it appears that our work to prioritize restaurants most in need was successful in the first round, the extraordinary demand for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund shows that many more businesses still desperately need help," said Democratic Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon in a statement. 

Representative Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, a Republican helping lead the effort, called for bipartisan effort in passing the bill. Republican lawmakers voted against the original fund as it was folded into President Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in March.

"Our restaurants are now beginning to recover from a year of lost revenue, but many establishments are still hurting and have not been able to access aid for which they are eligible. Replenishing this fund would help restaurants, their staff, and the broader food supply chain as they continue to get back on their feet," said Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, in a statement.

When the effort to help the hard-hit industry was first proposed, the industry group Independent Restaurant Coalition initially asked for $120 billion in relief, more than four times what was finally included. 

"Refilling the Restaurant Revitalization Fund is the most important thing Congress can do to get their constituents back on their feet and help their communities thrive," said Erika Polmar, executive director of the Independent Restaurant Coalition.

The hard-hit hospitality industry has been making a comeback as restaurants reopen and restrictions ease. Last month, food services and drinking places helped drive the increase in employment, adding 189,000 jobs. While the industry made gains through the first five months of the year, bars and restaurants still employ 1.5 million fewer people, or 12%, than they did before the pandemic.

Without additional funds, some restaurants still say they might not make it, even as the country reopens.

"My restaurant will not survive the year if Congress does not refill the Restaurant Revitalization Fund," said Antwan Smalls, co-owner of My Three Sons in Charleston, South Carolina, who has not received money. "Even though customers are starting to dine out once more, a few weeks of business as usual does not make up for 15 months of lost revenue. I can't pay my bills with money I don't have."

Others are not sure how they will pay their suppliers.

"I applied to the Restaurant Revitalization Fund as soon as it opened, but Congress did not allocate enough funding for my business and countless others," said Nina Compton, owner and chef of Compere Lapin and Bywater American Bistro in New Orleans. "I need this relief to keep my businesses afloat and support the farmers, producers, distributors, salesmen and other suppliers I have worked with for years."

Restaurant and food service businesses may have lost as much as $290 billion in sales due to the pandemic, according to analysis by the National Restaurant Association. 90,000 restaurants have closed permanently or long-term as of May. 

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