Congress to Debate New Funds for Restaurant Relief

Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont said he will urge his House colleagues to swiftly approve new aid to eateries still clawing their way back from COVID

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Vermont’s lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives is vowing to push for new financial support for the restaurant sector as it recovers from hardships brought on by the pandemic — and faces new financial challenges.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, wants to see the Congressionally-established Restaurant Revitalization Fund replenished with tens of billions of dollars — federal money he said Monday was previously approved for other areas of COVID recovery but never actually used. 

The Democrat told reporters at a press conference that the fund had bipartisan support earlier in the pandemic, so he’s optimistic it will again when the topic is back before Congress in the coming days and weeks.

“We really have to help those local communities be able to survive and get to the other side of COVID, so that when folks are able to get back — and we’re getting there now — those wonderful gathering places, the venues, the restaurants, will continue serving them and enriching local community life,” Rep. Welch said.

Sue Bette, the owner of Bluebird Barbecue in Burlington, said she worries about her fellow independent restaurant owners.

"Restaurants that did not receive the grant are under duress," Bette said of money from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.

The fund threw lifelines to the sector hit hard by pandemic closures. The National Restaurant Association said it saved 900,000 jobs across the country. 

However, hundreds of Vermont restaurants never received money they were approved for because the RRF ran out of cash. More than 175,000 businesses in other states are in the same boat, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Along with trying to claw back from COVID, restaurants are now also hit by a labor shortage, higher food costs, and delays in the supply chain, small businesses have noted.

"Without the grant program, you don’t have that stability, and I know for a fact it’s day-by-day," Bette said of many of the more than 500 Vermont eateries that did not receive money from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund before the money was depleted.

The Vermont Chamber of Commerce said it appreciates the focus on support for small businesses at a challenging time.

"Many of Vermont‘s small businesses, which make up the majority of businesses in Vermont, really are trying to put the pieces back together and they’re fighting to remain whole still," said Amy Spear, the vice president of tourism for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. "Recovery efforts such as those discussed today would enable businesses to not only recover, but thrive."

Welch also said he wants to extend deadlines for arts and culture venues to use their COVID recovery grant money. He explained many have struggled with securing labor or materials so could use some extra time to spend the funds.

Jay Wahl, the executive director of the Flynn in downtown Burlington, echoed that the performing arts venue would benefit from greater flexibility to spend recovery funds in strategic ways — rather than having to meet strict dates set by the government.

As Rep. Welch works on the funds for restaurants and cultural venues, he is also addressing criticism from his likely opponent in a race for the U.S. Senate this fall.

Republican Christina Nolan, Vermont’s former top federal prosecutor, said last week she does not believe Welch has done enough to show support for law enforcement or to oppose efforts to defund police forces.

"As Vermont’s former U.S. Attorney, I have a tough-on-crime record," Nolan said in a written statement last week. "I intend to continue prioritizing public safety as our state’s next United States Senator. I have been a strong supporter of law enforcement throughout my time in public service. Congressman Welch cannot say the same, and that is why we need a new direction and fresh perspective for Vermonters."

However, in an interview with NECN after the press conference on relief for restaurants, Welch rejected Nolan’s accusation. 

The Democrat countered that he has long supported grants to local police agencies and has positive relationships with many members of law enforcement in agencies statewide.

“What I’ve always admired about our police here is they’re on the forefront of doing things to improve public safety and when it comes to training, they’re all in,” Welch said. “So I have always been supportive of the police and appreciate so much how challenging that job is and how critical they are to community safety.”

Before the U.S. Senate election in November, Welch and Nolan each will appear on Primary Day ballots in August. They are looking to replace Democrat Patrick Leahy in the Senate when he retires.

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