Louisiana restaurants await second helping of COVID-19 relief


BATON ROUGE (BRPROUD) — Louisiana restaurant managers, owners, and industry leaders are voicing optimism regarding Congress’ COVID-19 relief package — even as they acknowledge challenges ahead.

The federal stimulus, set for passage Monday night on Capitol Hill, includes $900 billion in aid. Of that, $284 billion will go toward the Paycheck Protection Program, offering forgivable loans to qualified businesses.

“This bill will provide Louisiana restaurants with much needed capital, creating more time for us to work with Congress to develop additional programs to save our beloved community restaurants,” Louisiana Restaurant Association president Stan Harris said in a statement Monday.

The coronavirus has hit restaurants particularly hard. More than 110,000 restaurants have closed permanently or longterm since the pandemic began, according to a survey released earlier this month by the National Restaurant Association. In the same survey, 59% of restaurant operators said their labor-cost-to-sales ratio has risen beyond pre-pandemic levels; 37% said without more government aid, their restaurants would likely shutter within six months.

“Some places are doing better than others, but it’s been rough all around,” said Neal Hendrick, who owns Zippy’s Burritos Tacos & More on Perkins Road in Baton Rouge. “There’s nobody not suffering on the restaurant side of business.”

“There are certain people you used to see here all the time,” Rouj Creole general manager Stick Newchurch said of his Bluebonnet Boulevard restaurant. “You’re starting to see them less and less.”

Both Hendrick and Newchurch cite additional factors tied to the pandemic. Statewide capacity restrictions, enacted to limit the virus’ spread, have left fewer indoor seats available. Joblessness has left fewer customers with money to spend. Even with outdoor, take-out and delivery options available, the operators argue profits are not what they once were.

“If we can stay open and get more customers in, that’s what we really need,” Newchurch said.

That’s where they hope other facets of the relief deal come into play. The package also includes $600 stimulus checks for people earning $75,000 a year and married couples earning up to $150,000 — and another $600 per dependent child. It also revives $300 of the $600 federal jobless benefit that expired in July and lets unemployed Americans collect state benefits for 50 weeks.

But restaurant operators and industry leaders argue their challenges will not end with the relief package’s passage. Congressional Democrats and Republicans have suggested a third helping of COVID-19 aid could come within the first few months of 2021.

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