Restaurant Revitalization Fund, grant money could be on the way for small businesses

This article first appeared in The Business Journals.

Small businesses could see more Restaurant Revitalization Fund money and other grants for hard-hit industries — but only after Congress finishes its work on a pair of infrastructure bills.

Right now, Congress is occupied trying to pass both a $1 trillion “hard infrastructure” bill with funding for roads and bridges, as well as another $3.5 trillion bill including tax credits for families with children through a process called reconciliation allowing just 50 votes in the Senate. That political wrangling is happening both between Democrats and Republicans and within the Democratic Party itself over how big the bill should be and how it should be passed.

  • Search the database: See which Massachusetts bars, restaurants received Restaurant Revitalization Fund grants

There is also a separate, but related issue over raising the so-called “debt ceiling,” which is essentially a separate vote by Congress to continue paying for spending it has already approved — and for which there is currently no Republican support in the Senate.

But once those thorny issues are dealt with, Congress will turn at least part of its attention to another stimulus bill focused on hard-hit industries, according to one source familiar with the deliberations. That includes a goal of having legislation before the end of the year. An initial draft is already in the works.

The legislation is currently being worked on between lawmakers on the various small business committees in the House and the Senate, in coordination with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., according to the source, with the potential for bipartisan support.

“Republican leadership is open to further aid for the hardest hit industries that weren’t addressed by previous aid moving on a bipartisan package, though they would prefer the aid package be paid for when it moves,” the source said.

To be sure, plans can change and legislation can fall by the wayside. Even the current infrastructure bills were expected to be completed much earlier this year. But so far, this potential stimulus legislation is likely to include more funding for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, as well as for gyms and others, according to the source.

Brian Doyle, spokesperson for Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., said the lawmaker was advocating strongly for a small business relief package for industries harmed by the Delta variant, such as restaurants, gyms and the live events industry.

His office put out a press release in late September stating Phillips had secured a promise from Pelosi to create a small business relief package in the House. The exchange was reported in The Hill as part of Pelosi’s efforts to secure votes for the reconciliation legislation.

“We can’t allow our nation’s Main Street business and community gathering places to suffer when we have both the tools and the resources necessary to keep them afloat. Too many lives and livelihoods depend on the strength of our small businesses. I look forward to working with my colleagues from both sides of the aisle to craft a relief package that meets the challenges of this moment.”

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, declined to comment specifically on a potential small business relief package. But a spokesperson stressed Cardin’s dedication to advancing legislation to help industries hurt by Covid-19.

“The Delta variant has slowed the nation’s record-setting recovery, so Congress cannot mistake the hopeful signs of recovery for proof that small businesses are back to where they were before the pandemic,” a spokesperson said. “Senator Cardin is working to advance bipartisan proposals, including targeted relief to restaurants and other small businesses still struggling under the burdens of Covid-19.”

The quickly exhausted Restaurant Relief Fund has yet to be replenished after quickly running out earlier this summer. Eligible applicants to the program had requested more than $72 billion in funds — far more than the $28.6 Congress had approved for the program.

Meanwhile, other industries advanced their own grant program proposals but those stalled in Congress earlier in 2021. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, had proposed $30 billion for the fitness industry and had introduced legislation that would provide grants of up to $25 million for gyms hardest hit by the pandemic.

The hotel industry is also lobbying for a dedicated grant program, as well, pushing Congress to pass $20 billion in grants for its hardest-hit hotels. But it is unclear what could make it into the final legislation.

The potential legislation is separate from a $25 billion proposal recently approved by the U.S. House Small Business Committee would boost a number of Small Business Administration grant and lending programs.