ST. LOUIS — Tara Gallina is a busy woman, trying to keep her livelihood alive while navigating the restaurant world in the middle of a pandemic.
Not only does she run Vicia with her husband and chef Michael, but also in the last year the couple acquired Winslow’s Home – now Winslow’s Table – serving elevated comfort food in a cozy University City space. On top of that, they have a young daughter.
But COVID-19 brought on a new role for Gallina – advocate.
“I have so much time!” she said laughing.
She joined forces with the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), fighting the funding fight for locally-owned restaurants across America.
“There needs to be help for businesses like mine and so many not just here in St. Louis, but across the country,” she said. “So, when I found out that there was a group of people that I really respected in the industry nationwide working to lobby for support from Congress, the former student government representative in me … I just felt like I had to do something.”
The RESTAURANTS Act
Gallina joined the IRC in hopes of putting pressure on lawmakers on Capitol Hill. They want a bipartisan bill that’s being presented in both the House and the Senate to be taken seriously.
It’s called the RESTAURANTs Act, which is an acronym for “Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed to Survive.” It’s going through Congress as House Resolution 7197 and Senate resolution 4012.
The bill acknowledges how the restaurant industry – and its 11 million employees – have been uniquely devastated by the economic impacts of the coronavirus.
“From farm workers and fishermen to truck drivers and restaurant workers, the restaurant industry provides a $1 trillion annual boost to the United States’ economy, to say nothing of supporting tens of millions of individuals’ and families’ livelihoods,” it reads.
The introduction of the bill also outlines how dire the situation is.
More than 5 million restaurant workers lost jobs in April. Today, four in 10 restaurants are closed. Those that are open are dealing with decimated revenues. More than 70% of salaried employees and 90% of hourly employees have been laid off.
The National Bureau of Economic Research predicts only 15% of restaurants will be able to stay open if the pandemic lasts just another few months, which almost certainly will happen.
So, what does the bill propose?
It essentially establishes a $120 billion forgivable grant program for food and drink establishments and caterers to stay open through 2020, to cover the difference between revenue from 2019 and what they’re expecting to now make this year. The money would cover payroll, benefits, mortgage and rent, utilities, supplies – including PPE – food, debt to suppliers and other essential expenses.
It would be for places that aren’t publicly traded or part of a big chain with 20 or more locations doing business under the same name. Businesses that bring in $1.5 million or less every year get priority when applying in the first couple weeks.
Of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, 176 of them have added their name, including three Republicans. Missouri’s representative for St. Louis – Lacy Clay – signed on as a co-sponsor, as well as eight representatives from Illinois.
In the Senate, both of Illinois’ senators are co-sponsors of the bill.
“I’ve heard from restaurant owners and workers about the financial hardships they’re facing during the pandemic. Congress must provide assistance to keep these restaurants – many of which are small businesses – and their employees afloat during this national crisis,” Sen. Dick Durbin told 5 On Your Side through a spokesperson.
In Missouri, senators Josh Hawley and Roy Blunt don’t oppose the RESTAURANTS Act, but both are pushing for help in different forms.
“I’ve cosponsored the RESTART Act, which would help restaurants and other types of businesses by building on the success of the PPP,” Sen. Blunt said in an email to 5 On Your Side. The RESTART Act is endorsed by the National Restaurant Association. “The bill creates a new economic relief program that increases flexibility, expands eligibility so more businesses can access aid, and provides loan forgiveness for the hardest hit businesses.”
Sen. Hawley has been promoting his Rehire America plan, which is also centered around jobs.
“Any relief from Congress needs to be focused on getting Missourians their jobs back and giving businesses the ability to hire new workers,” he said in an email, adding that his plan would help other small businesses even beyond the restaurant industry.
Why it's needed
Tara Gallina thinks the specificity of the RESTAURANTS Act is needed because of the specific situations the industry faces – and to ensure the money goes to those who need it most.
“This is for people who really, truly have lost,” she said. “Setting some assistance through the end of the year is really important for restaurants to be able to survive. And so many have closed already. And, you know, the reality is that many more will if help doesn't come.”
The IRC – the group Gallina is working with to push through a bill – is new. Despite the strong sense of community in the hospitality industry, local restaurants across the country never had a unified voice fighting for them in Washington. Now, they do.
“When they keep hearing from us about the same thing, eventually, they have to start listening,” Gallina said. “We elect these people. Their job is to serve us. So, like, no one should be afraid to ask for things. That's why they're there.”
Gallina said the pandemic problem goes beyond affecting chefs and waiters. Think of the companies that supply the food. Think of the drivers who get it there.
“It's just so much bigger that I think people realize,” she explained.
In stressing the need for federal help, Gallina said, “This is not a political issue.”
Previously federal help through a PPP loan not only helped her restaurants, she said they helped keep the doors from closing for good.
“Without it, I wouldn’t be talking to you today as a business owner. I fully believe that. So, I’m very grateful for that,” she said. “But again, it was targeted for a two-month period. So, they’ve got to come up with some other form of help that is meant to extend through this.”
You can learn more about the bills and how you can take action on the RESTAURANTS Act website here.
This story is a companion piece to the Abby Eats St. Louis podcast episode called "Politics at the table". You can download the episode for free and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We've included links below to some of the most popular podcast platforms.