Republican and Democratic congressional legislators are considering a $120 billion grant program for independent food and drinking establishments.
Similar aid programs have been introduced into both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, with some members of the New Mexico congressional delegation among their supporters.
Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-Las Cruces, of New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District said that restaurants, wineries, breweries and bars are essential parts of communities and must have more financial support to survive the pandemic.
“It is impossible to wear a mask while you are eating, so they have special challenges when it comes to fighting COVID-19, so we have to be sure to support them,” she said. “Also, while the Paycheck Protection Program, while it was helpful at the time, a lot of restaurant owners I have talked to have said that their Paycheck Protection funds, they spent them all.”
Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-Nambe, of the 3rd Congressional District is a cosponsor of House Bill 7197.
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“Like many mom-and-pop businesses across New Mexico, restaurants are struggling to stay afloat during this pandemic that remains an urgent threat to our public health,” Lujan said.
He said the bill would “help restaurants make ends meet, support their employees and weather this crisis.”
Torres Small said that she would like to see the bill become part of a new coronavirus-related economic relief package now being debated by Congress.
The Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed to Survive (RESTAURANTS) Act would establish the $120 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund to provide grants to qualifying restaurants until Dec. 31.
Both bills also would set aside money for the U.S. Treasury to administer the program. The Senate bill (S.4012) introduced by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, would provide $200 million, while the House bill would allocate $300 million.
Torres Small said the Payroll Protection Program, which went through the Small Business Administration, showed that a lack of dedicated administrative staffing to develop guidelines and manage the program caused delays and problems in the initial stages of funding, which she said caused unfairness toward smaller businesses. She also said she is working to get more funding for that program, as well.
The proposed RESTAURANTS Act is meant to be flexible regarding use of funds, she said. Grants could be used not only for payroll expenses, rent and utilities, but also for other items such as debt payments and supplies, including whatever sanitizing or personal protective materials are needed to comply with health orders.
The legislation is meant to serve small, independent businesses. For the first 14 days of funding, the program would be open only to enterprises in marginalized communities or those owned by women, minorities, veterans and having less than $1.5 million in annual revenues. Also, both bills specify that, of the amount given to the U.S. Treasury for administering the program, $60 million would be used to work with underrepresented communities and groups.
“It does try to reach specifically communities that are hard to serve,” Torres Small said. “It also provides money specifically to independent restaurants, so restaurants with less than 20 locations.”
Business conditions in New Mexico for restaurants are especially difficult now. Restaurants, bars, wineries and breweries were restricted to take-out, delivery and drive-thru beginning in March. Amended orders allowed patio and indoor service again starting in June, but the indoor-serving ban was reinstated effective July 13 and is due to last until July 30.
Renewed restrictions have resulted in “Let Us Serve” protests across the state and are the subject of several court cases.
The New Mexico Supreme Court issued an emergency order Monday to uphold the indoor-serving restriction for now. That ruling came after the state filed an immediate appeal of a temporary injunction against the indoor-seating ban issued Monday by New Mexico 5th Judicial District Court Judge Raymond Romero of Eddy County. Romero was ruling in a case filed by several businesses, as well as the New Mexico Restaurant Association. The state Supreme Court is asking for parties to make additional filings later this month so that the court can order a final ruling at some point.
Lawsuits concerning public health orders are occurring with local business plaintiffs, as well. That includes a case filed Thursday by several companies and restaurants controlled by Madux Hobbs.
The restaurants owned are the Cowboy Cafe on East Second Street and Black Betty BBQ food trailer and restaurant on North Virginia Avenue. Hobbs’ other companies own the Hi-Q event venue on East Second Street, vacation rentals and property occupied by tenants that the lawsuit states were not able to operate because of public health order restrictions.
That case is now assigned before Judge James Hudson of the 5th Judicial District Court in Chaves County. The lawsuit is alleging “unlawful taking” of property without just compensation. It asks for a jury trial to decide whether money is owed for lost income, damages, attorney fees and court costs. No hearing date has been set yet.
A. Blair Dunn, one of the lawyers representing Hobbs, said the Supreme Court case involving injunctive relief has no bearing on their case.
“Our argument is that they (state officials) do have the authority to do what they are doing,” Dunn said. “But, if they do it, then the statutes and the Constitution require that they pay for it.”
Torres Small said that businesses in the food and drinking services industry are going to need financial relief, regardless of the outcomes of legal matters.
“No matter what happens through the judicial process or with the governor’s orders, they are facing exceptional challenges,” Torres Small said. “No matter what happens in terms of being able to open their indoor serving, they are going to need more support.”
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at email@example.com.