COVID-19 stimulus disappoints Chicago restaurants and workers


Sunday night broke the news that Congress had struck a stimulus deal, giving restaurant owners another round of Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loans and $600 checks to workers. That’s half the amount the restaurants received in the spring, when checks for $1,200 were issued.

Restaurant owners local and across the country have expressed disappointment at the news, including the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a national group whose board includes Kevin Boehm of the Boka Restaurant Group. They said they hoped the package was an appetizer that would “buy time for Congress to negotiate a more robust plan.” The coalition prefers a package closer to the RESTAURANTS Act, a proposal passed by the House in October that would have directed $120 billion to the restaurant industry.

“We are grateful to the many House and Senate champions who fought for these changes,” a coalition press release said. “But make no mistake: Independent restaurants and bars will continue to close without further help this winter, leaving millions more out of work.”

Others weren’t so diplomatic in wanting a restaurant-specific solution. As Brian Mita, owner of Izakaya Mita in Bucktown writes on social media: “PPP is not a relief for restaurants. Did you see how they screwed up the first time?

Restaurant workers don’t think the package goes far enough. A handful of memes have popped up on social media in reaction, comparing congressional efforts to organize a pizza party for members of industry or the distribution of department store gift cards. Many in the industry have directed their anger at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican spearheaded efforts against paying workers $1,200 checks.

Earlier this month, Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth promised a group of restaurateurs in the state that her colleagues would approve a COVID-19 relief package to help the hospitality industry.

“I won’t leave town until we get federal help,” Duckworth said at a Dec. 11 virtual town hall.

Speakers such as Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill) and Erick Williams (Virtue) were inspired by the senator’s optimism at the meeting. Concerns remain from Sheldrick Holmes, who operates the Grail Cafe, which opened in January 2020. He left the world of finance to enter the world of restaurants, but after this year he jokes in saying he left the restaurant industry to become a professional grants writer. He is tired after answering the same questions over and over again about applying for grants and loans.

“I’m like, did Boeing have to answer their questions when they got their money immediately?” Holmes said.

Newer restaurants, like Grail Cafe, are struggling to find help because they can’t demonstrate to lenders that they’ve been losing money year after year. If the company did not exist, there is no register to submit. This flaw seems to persist in the new rescue program.

Another eligibility question posted to Duckworth at the meeting came from Jeff Lawler, the 55-year-old owner of Geja’s Cafe in Lincoln Park. Lawler is proud to follow COVID-19 safety rules, including keeping his dining room closed. But recent reports point to fraud, including at Ann Sather, the restaurant owned by Ald. (44th Ward) Tom Tunney – frustrated Lawler. He asks if restaurants that have kept their doors closed will be on equal footing in receiving funds compared to those that have ignored government orders.

“I just feel like these people are going to ask for relief just like I do,” Lawler said. “The difference is that they had revenue for the whole month of November.”

Ann Sather received $357,500 in PPP funds in April, according to government data released earlier this month. Lawler says hearing that the alderman was bending the rules was both disappointing and frustrating.

In a newsletter sent to his constituents last week, Tunney says a hearing is scheduled for February. That’s when the city could fine Ann Sather up to $10,500: “As the case won’t be heard until February, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time,” says the newsletter.

Eater Chicago asked a Duckworth spokesperson for a response to Lawler’s question. The Duckworth camp provided this statement:

Senator Duckworth encourages every restaurant and small business to fully comply with state and local orders for safe operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Failure to comply with these orders should be reported and investigated.

Senator Duckworth wants all struggling small businesses that have complied with the rules to get relief. It supports the full financing of the PPP program so that no business is left behind. Additionally, the House-passed HEROES 2.0, which Senator Duckworth supports, would direct a second round of relief to small businesses, like restaurants, that may demonstrate substantial revenue losses from COVID-19. One of Senator Duckworth’s top priorities is to quickly relieve the hardest-hit businesses, and she believes any final compromise must pass that test.

  • Congress finally reached a deal on coronavirus stimulus [Vox]
  • The new bipartisan stimulus proposal really sucks for restaurants [Eater]
  • What is the RESTAURANTS Act – and can it really save the hospitality industry? [Grub Street]
  • Congress passed a short-term funding bill, giving itself two more days to negotiate a stimulus [Vox]
  • River West’s infamous dive bar openly defies pandemic rules with indoor service [Eater Chicago]
  • Alderman Tom Tunney’s Bulletin [Official Website]
  • Alderman Tom Tunney’s Chicago restaurant faces $10,500 fines as owners lash out at his hypocrisy [Eater Chicago]


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