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Coronavirus stimulus obstacle: Trump, Congress 'don’t fundamentally understand restaurants,’ says chef and restaurant owner

Sibile Marcellus
·Reporter
·3 min read

The pandemic has driven a stake right into the heart of America’s independent restaurants. According to the Independent Restaurant Coalition, one in six restaurants have already shut their doors – for good – and as many as 85% will close permanently unless more coronavirus stimulus from Washington materializes.

The Independent Restaurant Coalition, which advocates for the roughly 500,000 independent bars and restaurants in the U.S., has lobbied hard to try to get the Restaurants Act passed. The bipartisan legislation would provide a $120 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund to save the industry.

While the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) saw momentum for the bill grow prior to Nov. 3, it soon fizzled.

“We thought we would have the second stimulus package done for a strong community, but then because of the election and because of the Supreme Court vote, we had to take a step back,” chef and restaurant owner Marcus Samuelsson, a member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, told Yahoo Finance. “We thought we would get it passed in mid-October.”

As the weeks roll on without a stimulus deal, the IRC is starting to pin its hopes on the new Biden administration.

In this Feb. 7, 2012 photo, chef Marcus Samuelsson, owner of the Red Rooster, standing, talks with his staff at his restaurant in New York. Born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, Samuelsson's ambitious Harlem eatery pulsates with action any day of the week. Not merely a restaurant, Red Rooster aims to be the hub of a revitalized Harlem.  (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
In this Feb. 7, 2012 photo, chef Marcus Samuelsson, owner of the Red Rooster, standing, talks with his staff at his restaurant in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

“What’s been clear throughout this, is that the Trump administration and Congress as a whole don’t fundamentally understand restaurants. There’s a difference between chain restaurants and independent restaurants,” said Samuelsson.

More than 16 million people are employed by independent bars and restaurants, according to the IRC. “These six- to eight- to 10-week [stimulus delays] is [the] difference between those mom-and-pops that we love in our communities, that coffee shop, that bar, that diner [being able] to stay alive,” he said.

The U.S. restaurant industry represents about 4% of GDP but employs about 8% of the total labor force. Even chain restaurants have suffered during the pandemic, as big-name brands like Friendly’s and Ruby Tuesday filed for bankruptcy protection.

‘This is not something that’s going to go away only with a vaccine’

The restaurant industry may continue to suffer from the financial devastation of the pandemic for the next 15 years, said Samuelsson, author of the latest book “The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food.”

Samuelsson, who owns 13 restaurants around the world including 7 in the U.S, has tried to help workers reach the middle class.

An employee of a restaurant waits for customers in an area where coronavirus cases have recently spiked in Newark, N.J., Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. Nonessential businesses in Newark already must close at 8 p.m. and restaurant and bars must cease indoor service at 8 p.m., under an executive order signed by the mayor two weeks ago. In some parts of New Jersey's largest city residents are facing a 9 p.m. curfew for at least the rest of the month as officials seek to stop a surge in coronavirus infections. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
An employee of a restaurant waits for customers in an area where coronavirus cases have recently spiked in Newark, N.J., Nov. 12, 2020. Nonessential businesses in Newark already must close at 8 p.m. and restaurant and bars must cease indoor service at 8 p.m., under an executive order signed by the mayor two weeks ago. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

At his Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem, pre-pandemic, Samuelsson employed 180 people. “We served about 4,000 people a week. We also [provided] employment for about 70 musicians,” he said. “This job creation in my community and our communities are game-changing. They’re on a path to health care, they’re on a path to the middle class.”

Unless Washington focuses on stimulus, the economic damage from the pandemic is “not something that’s going to go away only with a vaccine,” said Samuelsson.

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