December 11, 2020

Duckworth offers hope to restaurant industry workers, says relief bill ‘very close’

Source: Chicago Tribune


In a video town-hall meeting sponsored by the Illinois Restaurant Association, Sen. Tammy Duckworth gave hope to the restaurant industry, saying that a relief bill that would provide immediate financial assistance was “very close to the finish line.”

“I’m not leaving town until we get federal relief out the door,” she said Friday, speaking from Washington.

The news cheered the restaurant industry members who participated in the call, who also reiterated that restaurant owners and workers are facing a crisis.

“What we really need is a dedicated relief fund like the RESTAURANTS Act,” said Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association. “But at the very least, we need a down payment immediately, before the end of the year.”

Toia ticked off more than a few frightening statistics, some already familiar to members of the industry: 2.1 million restaurant workers are unemployed; 58% of surveyed restaurants say they’re unlikely to remain in business without federal aid. Duckworth, who co-sponsored the RESTAURANTS Act (which already has passed in the House), emphasized her support and vowed to keep fighting.

For the immediate future, Duckworth’s focus remained on passing another round of the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan program, with provisions that would help the restaurant industry and other small businesses.

“I’m personally writing a bill that would include automatic (PPP) loan forgiveness, for businesses making less than $150,000, without paperwork,” Duckworth said. “There would be checkmarks, and if you meet the criteria, your loan will be forgiven.”

(The criteria are still unspecified, but intended, Duckworth said, to identify “true small businesses.”)

Other speakers included an emotional Rick Bayless. The acclaimed chef and Frontera restaurant group owner spoke through tears as he recounted the desperation of the current situation.

“This is the biggest demand for housing and food assistance we’ve seen since the Great Depression,” he said. “Congress isn’t acting like they’re aware that 2.1 million people in our profession are out of work. I used to have 250 employees; now we have 80. People who worked with me and have gone on to open their own restaurants, making major contributions to their neighborhood — and that’s the American Dream, isn’t it? And now they’re telling me that they can’t survive. We’re seeing neighborhoods being shattered because the American Dream is being shattered.

“Our industry is incredibly resilient,” Bayless said. “I’ve been so impressed with their tenacity and willingness to do anything to get to the other side. But we’re standing on the precipice. Get us something so we can hold onto some hope.”

Erick Williams, chef/owner of Virtue restaurant in Hyde Park, was the last to speak.

“The reality is, we’re in dire straits,” he said, “and being an African American chef had its own challenges. But I don’t know one congressman or politician who hasn’t used hospitality services to get where they are, from fundraisers to galas. It’s time for them to come together and recognize the community that has been the rung on their ladders.”

By:  Phil Vettel