Dozens of Maine restaurants are pressing Sen. Susan Collins to add her support to a measure that would provide billions of dollars in financial aid to the struggling industry.

About 100 eateries and bars signed on to a letter to Collins last week, urging her to back the Real Economic Support that Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed to Survive Act known as the Restaurants Act, which would dedicate $120 billion in grants to independently owned eateries.

“Independent restaurants, bars, tasting and tap rooms and caterers across the country are suffering inordinate losses as the COVID-19 pandemic surges in virtually every state,” the letter’s authors wrote. In Maine, cold weather and short days make outdoor seating uncomfortable and many eateries are considering reverting to takeout service only as the number of coronavirus cases in the state skyrockets.

“Especially here in Maine, where winter challenges the restaurant industry in a normal year, small independent restaurants are facing the most painful and dire stretch we’ve ever had to endure,” the letter states.

The industry has been roiled by the coronavirus pandemic. Accommodation and food service businesses in Maine shed more than 34,000 jobs, more than half the entire workforce, during a statewide shutdown in April, according to the Maine Department of Labor. Despite months of job growth, there were 13,000 fewer jobs in the sector in October than in February.

Restaurant sales from January through September were about $1.7 billion, 36 percent less than the same period in 2019, according to Maine Revenue Services records.

Time is running out for Maine’s restaurants and the tens of thousands of people they employ, said Andrew Taylor, a co-owner of Big Tree Hospitality, the group that owns Eventide Oyster Co., Honey Paw and Hugo’s in Portland.

“We are going to be looking at huge layoffs in the restaurant industry here in the next couple months and massive closures, which is what I’m afraid of,” Taylor said. “From the standpoint of workers, we have about a month here before we have huge, huge layoffs.”

The Restaurant Act, which has bipartisan support in the U.S. House and Senate, would provide grants to qualified businesses to cover expenses, payroll and other costs. Unlike previous business relief programs, including the Paycheck Protection Program, it is targeted at independently owned establishments.

A House version of the bill, introduced by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, in June, attracted 214 mostly Democrat co-sponsors. It was included in a $2.2 trillion relief bill passed by the House in October.

The Senate version, co-sponsored by Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, has support from 48 Senators from both parties, but has not moved far in that side of Congress.

Another round of general business grants won’t be enough for the restaurant industry, Taylor said. Aid needs to be aimed at the hardest-hit businesses and passed soon, potentially before a broader federal relief bill, he said.

“It will just buy enough time to get us through what we think is going to be the toughest period restaurants have ever faced in Maine and nationwide,” Taylor said.

“We see Sen. Collins as a real ally,” Taylor said. “She championed the Paycheck Protection Program in the spring, she understands how important it is to support workers in this state.”

Collins, who co-authored the Paycheck Protection Program that provided forgivable loans to businesses this spring and campaigned for re-election as a supporter of small business, is the only member of Maine’s congressional delegation who has not co-sponsored the Restaurants Act.

In a statement, Collins said she was working with colleagues on another round of the Paycheck Protection Program that would make it simpler to forgive loans under $150,000, set aside funding for businesses with fewer than 10 employees and expand allowed expenses to include things like protective equipment and other investments to operate safely during the pandemic.

“I have been working with two bipartisan groups of my colleagues on another COVID-19 relief package, and my number one priority is allowing the hardest-hit small businesses, such as restaurants, to receive a second forgivable PPP loan,” Collins said.

“The PPP was tremendously successful, and there is broad, bipartisan agreement for providing additional funding for this proven program.”


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