President Trump Halts COVID-19 Relief Negotiations, Stalling Much Needed Help for the Restaurant Industry

The proposed HEROES Act 2.0 included $120 billion in assistance for small and independent restaurants.

New York City Restaurants Face Continued Uncertainty Amid COVID-19 Pandemic
Photo: Getty Images/Spencer Platt / Staff

Just a week ago, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were discussing the details of the House Democrats' second attempt at an economic stimulus package, an updated version of the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act which had been proposed in May.

HEROES 2.0 included a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks for millions of Americans, and also some targeted relief for the struggling restaurant industry. $120 billion of the bill's $2.2 trillion overall price tag had been allocated for the "Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed to Survive" (RESTAURANTS) Act, which would provide grants to restaurants, bars, food trucks, and other food-service venues to cover the difference between their revenues last year, and their pandemic-ravaged revenues for this year.

Last Tuesday morning, Pelosi said that she was "optimistic" that the two sides could reach an agreement and send HEROES 2.0 for a vote in the Senate. Those discussions came to an abrupt end yesterday when President Donald Trump tweeted that additional aid was off the table until after Election Day.

"Nancy Pelosi is asking for $2.4 Trillion Dollars to bailout poorly run, high crime, Democrat States, money that is in no way related to COVID-19. We made a very generous offer of $1.6 Trillion Dollars and, as usual, she is not negotiating in good faith. I am rejecting their request, and looking to the future of our Country," Trump wrote in a series of tweets.

"I have instructed my representatives to stop negotiating until after the election when, immediately after I win, we will pass a major Stimulus Bill that focuses on hardworking Americans and Small Business. I have asked [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell not to delay, but to instead focus full time on approving my outstanding nominee to the United States Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett."

The Independent Restaurant Coalition immediately registered its concern with the president's decision to call off negotiations until November—or later. "If Congress and the President walk away from negotiations, even more of our neighborhood restaurants will go out of business," the organization wrote in a statement. "Restaurant employment decreased in nine states in the last available report, and this industry remains the largest contributor to national unemployment. We cannot afford five or six more weeks of decreased revenue, more debt, and uncertainty about colder weather [...] Helping restaurants is good policy and good politics and our elected officials should get this done."

Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), the senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee who introduced the bipartisan RESTAURANTS Act, accused the president of "turning his back" on an entire industry. "Trump's decision means you won't get another $1,200 cash payment. And if you're out of work because of his mismanagement of the pandemic, you won't get supplemental unemployment benefits either," he tweeted. "Trump's decision means no additional relief for millions of small businesses. He is even turning his back on our bipartisan effort to save 85% of independent restaurants from going out of business." And Momofuku founder David Chang called it "politics over doing what's right."

According to QSR magazine, even though the foodservice sector gained around 200,000 jobs in September, the industry still employs 2.3 million fewer people than it did before the pandemic began. More than 800,000 foodservice workers are still filing for weekly unemployment benefits.

"Today, once again, President Trump showed his true colors: putting himself first at the expense of the country, with the full complicity of the GOP Members of Congress," Pelosi said in a statement. "Walking away from coronavirus talks demonstrates that President Trump is unwilling to crush the virus, as is required by the Heroes Act. He shows his contempt for science, his disdain for our heroes—in health care, first responders, sanitation, transportation, food workers, teachers, teachers, teachers and others—and he refuses to put money in workers' pockets, unless his name is printed on the check."

Trump later kind-of-sort-of changed his mind, tweeting that he was "ready to sign" a standalone bill for a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks. But that isn't likely to help a restaurant owner pay rent for another month, nor does it keep them from having to furlough or lay off any additional staff members.

"If we don't get this bill passed, I don't know what's going to happen to independent restaurants, and our neighborhoods and our communities will look very, very different," Chopped judge Marcus Samuelsson said during an appearance on Squawk Box. "Even with this, it's going to take an incredible task to build the restaurant industry back."

And if the president means what he tweets, then the rebuilding may not start until after the election—or until after Inauguration Day.

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