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What restaurants need from the 2020 election

Emma Hinchliffe
·10 mins read

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There was arguably no industry hit harder or faster by the coronavirus pandemic than restaurants. The urgent need for economic relief to keep small—and not-so-small—businesses afloat has turned restaurateurs, chefs, and servers into de facto activists for their own livelihoods.

So the upcoming November election is top of mind for owners and workers throughout the industry. While many are more concerned with staying afloat in the week ahead than with policy that won’t take shape until January, members of the field are certainly keeping an eye on which administration—and which local lawmakers—will be controlling their fates in four months’ time.

From takeout-only storefronts to fine-dining establishments, the single universal requirement of eating at a restaurant—that, to consume your food, you need to remove your face mask—has made the industry’s reopening during the coronavirus pandemic especially fraught. With restrictions on indoor dining capacity and colder weather in many parts of the country soon to make outdoor dining—thought to be a less likely setting for transmission of COVID-19—less appealing, getting these businesses through the upcoming months is more important to operators than ever.

These restaurant industry professionals—from Top Chef judge and restaurateur Tom Colicchio to the owner of a business shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic—told Fortune which issues are most important to them this election cycle.

Economic relief

The top priority for many throughout the restaurant industry is the urgent need for economic relief. One in four unemployed workers since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States have been restaurant workers, according to the Independent Restaurant Coalition.

The group, formed to protect the interests of independent owners in the industry, is lobbying for the Restaurants Act, which would provide $120 billion in relief for the industry. Advocates are calling for that legislation in addition to the Paycheck Protection Program, which was available to all sorts of businesses.

The bill is endorsed by operators at all levels of the industry, from mom-and-pop shops up to representatives of national chain establishments. “We’re comfortable asking for special treatment,” says Sean Kennedy, executive vice president for public affairs for the National Restaurant Association, “because we are uniquely affected.”

President Trump has heard from restaurant operators over the past several months, including through a May roundtable. “The Trump Administration has undertaken unprecedented actions to alleviate the burden coronavirus has imposed on the restaurant and hospitality industry,” White House deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews said in a statement to Fortune. “From launching the Paycheck Protection Program to providing employers the option to defer their payroll taxes, President Trump has been on the front lines providing flexibility and relief for America’s restaurateurs throughout this pandemic.”

As a candidate, rather than an officeholder, Democratic nominee Joe Biden has not as directly addressed the restaurant industry, but the Biden campaign points out that his proposals to aid small businesses would apply to much of the sector.

“Small businesses, especially restaurants, are the beating heart of our communities, but across the country they are struggling to keep their doors open,” Biden campaign spokesperson Rosemary Boeglin said in a statement to Fortune. “The Trump Administration has left them out to dry, siding with big corporations and largely shutting minority-owned businesses out of COVID recovery funds. This translates to millions of jobs lost and far too many businesses permanently shuttered. Joe Biden has a restart plan for small businesses like restaurants to get back up and running and get workers back on payroll.”

Economic relief includes not just saving these establishments, but also supporting workers who remain laid off as restaurants downsize or who don’t feel safe enough to return to work as their employers reopen. People throughout the restaurant industry say they are eager to see more federal relief in the form of unemployment funding.

And in an open letter published September 24, 150 restaurant owners and chefs endorsed Biden in the 2020 presidential election, arguing that Trump’s COVID-19 response is what put the restaurant industry at risk.

“The perception of job security has been snatched from us,” says Christy Perera, a former maître d’ at a New York Michelin-starred restaurant who was laid off in March. Perera relied on the extra COVID-19 unemployment funding, which expired in July. Now she’s continuing to look for jobs outside of the restaurant industry, translating her customer service experience to remote customer service positions.

Trump signed off on enhanced $600 weekly unemployment benefits at the beginning of the pandemic and okayed a $300 weekly benefit following the lapse of the original agreement. Biden has a proposal to overhaul the unemployment system to create “employment insurance” that would place the cost of the program on the federal, not state, government.

Kennedy is eager to make clear that workers at some of the nation’s chain restaurants face these same concerns. “If you’re a franchise owner and you own just one restaurant, you face the same issues as any other independent,” he says. “If you’re an employee at a chain, it doesn’t matter what logo is on your vest—your job is not assured.”

Local legislation

The federal government, however, can’t solve every problem the restaurant industry faces. While government relief would overwhelmingly help restaurants make it through this year, many have been forced to close, in part because of factors that are controlled by state and local lawmakers.

Many restaurateurs have cited struggles with their landlords as one reason why they couldn’t remain open. Camilla Marcus, the owner of the restaurant west~bourne in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, closed her business in early September after failing to negotiate a percentage-of-sales rent agreement with her landlord. She was forced to make a decision this month because of a personal guarantee that would have kicked in, making her personally liable for any missed rent.

“Tenants are being leveraged as a backstop for a pandemic,” she says. “Most closures are because tenants and landlords don’t see the situation in the same way.”

Marcus says she believes that city and state lawmakers should intervene to reform tax structures that incentivize landlords to have a vacant storefront rather than a struggling tenant. These kinds of regulations vary widely by city and by state. In New York City, where Marcus was forced to close her business, Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed a vacancy tax that would tax building owners who leave storefronts empty for longer than six months. The proposal would require the support of New York’s state government. New York’s City Council is considering recovery measures that include making sidewalk dining permanent in a bid to boost business.

Deepti Sharma, the founder of the food tech startups FoodtoEat and Bikky, has come to a similar conclusion after working with restaurant owners. Sharma is running for City Council in New York and hopes to address city issues from increasing the minimum wage for tipped workers to those landlord and tenant issues. “To me, what’s important is, What do these lawmakers believe in? Do they believe in fair wages?” Sharma asks.

Big-picture issues

But the restaurant industry had political concerns long before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Tom Colicchio, the Top Chef judge and restaurateur, has been a leading voice calling for economic relief for the industry, but also in food policy; he launched a podcast about the subject earlier this year.

The top political concerns on the minds of many in the industry? Health care and childcare, Colicchio says. Restaurant owners—like most small-business owners—say they don’t have good options for providing health care. Restaurant workers, in turn, often lack access to employer-sponsored plans. Trump has criticized the Affordable Care Act—and has said he has a replacement plan—but has not yet introduced any concrete proposals. Biden has pledged to protect the Affordable Care Act and supports creating a public health insurance option, the likes of which could be accessed by workers in the restaurant industry without employer-sponsored coverage.

When it comes to childcare, restaurant servers and cooks often work late at night, without reliable options for their children’s supervision, Colicchio says. Neither presidential candidate has put forward proposals that would close that gap in care, but both have addressed childcare as an issue. Trump, during his presidency, increased the size of the tax code’s childcare tax credit from $1,000 to $2,000. Biden supports an $8,000 tax credit and enhanced funding for after-school programs and community centers.

The other issues that most affect the industry? Immigration policy and climate policy. “It’s no secret that a lot of immigrants work in the restaurant industry—most of them on the books, paying taxes,” Colicchio says. “We need immigration policy to bring workers in where they have the same protections as anyone else in this country. We need a guest worker program that works.”

Biden generally agrees with Colicchio’s assessment of the shortcomings of these programs; his campaign’s immigration platform notes that the U.S.’s current temporary worker program is “cumbersome, bureaucratic, and inflexible.” He pledges to work with Congress to reform the temporary work visa system.

Trump’s immigration policy generally runs counter to the kind of protections for immigrant restaurant and food industry workers that Colicchio describes. The President supports a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and other restrictions on both authorized and unauthorized immigration. At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the White House moved to suspend programs for temporary foreign workers, citing high unemployment within the U.S.

“And it goes without saying that climate affects everything” from food supply to national security, Colicchio says. “If we’re not going to have a planet, it doesn’t matter what happens to restaurants.” Trump’s climate policies prioritize “balanc[ing] environmental protection with economic growth,” and the administration has reversed or weakened several regulations intended to address climate change. Biden’s climate proposal aims for the United States to achieve a “100% clean energy economy” and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

These big-picture issues are hard for restaurateurs to think about when their immediate crisis is so urgent. But policies on health care, climate, and immigration are all on the table in November alongside economic bailout proposals—and will be influencing the votes of the people in this industry.

Economic relief, still, remains an important first step. Says Perera: “Restaurants need an injection of capital so when you pull up Seamless in six months, you won’t have just McDonald’s and Burger King as your options.”

More from Fortune‘s special report on what business needs from the 2020 election:

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com