The Independent Restaurant Alliance of Oregon has published an open letter to Gov. Kate Brown, state senate president Peter Courtney, and Oregon house speaker Tina Kotek calling for immediate protections and aid for the industry ahead of the November 18 onsite dining shutdown.
The open letter, first covered by the Oregonian, calls for “a pragmatic mitigation plan that simultaneously supports the health of our guests, employees, and the livelihoods of the people and businesses that are the very heart of our communities.” Elements of that plan include more effective unemployment benefit distribution, the legalization of to-go cocktail sales, a temporary ban on commercial evictions, inexpensive and consistent COVID-19 test access, and financial relief programs specifically for the food and beverage industry. Those relief programs range from a distressed restaurant fund to “deferral of all city and state business taxes and licensing fees for small businesses for nine months with no interest or penalties,” as well as grant funding for restaurant owners so they can provide health insurance for their employees. “After eight months of operating with reduced capacity we have no cash reserves and are saddled with crippling debt,” the letter reads. “Without financial support now, many of us will be forced to close forever.”
The letter has been signed by more than 300 members of the industry, including notable chefs like Earl Ninsom (Langbaan, Eem), Gabriel Rucker (Le Pigeon, Canard), and Nong Poonsukwattana (Nong’s Khao Man Gai). IRAO advisory board chair Katy Connors, who also works as the director of operations at Hat Yai, says the closure will be devastating for the local restaurant industry, especially considering the lack of financial aid for food service workers and small businesses. “You see all the signatures on that letter?” she says. “Fifty percent of the restaurants on this list said that this closure would permanently close their doors.”
Earlier this year, the IRAO conducted a sobering survey of business owners related to the COVID-19 pandemic: The initial shutdown racked up an average of $40,000 in payroll expenses and inventory loss per location, and the loss of indoor dining causes a revenue loss of 81.75 percent on average. The shutdown will only compound the financial weight of things like rent, licensing fees, and taxes, without legislative relief or financial stimulus. For instance, the state has not extended the moratorium on commercial evictions, nor has it legalized the sale of to-go cocktails. Even beyond the commercial eviction ban, the open letter is calling for legal protections that would allow business owners the ability to default on or end commercial leases without having their personal assets seized — business owners without exceptional credit sign leases with a “personal guarantee,” which means landlords can take personal assets if the business can’t pay its rent.
“This isn’t just about risking their businesses; they’ve risked their homes,” Connors says. “These businesses are owned by people of color, by women ... This is an equity issue. This is hitting our most vulnerable.”
However, state and federal support for restaurant workers and small businesses have come to a standstill. Many restaurant workers in the Portland area have yet to receive unemployment benefits, months into the pandemic. The promising RESTAURANTS Act, a restaurant aid bill folded into the latest pandemic-related relief package, has stalled in the U.S. Senate. And although many local business owners have called for the state legislature to address the needs of the industry during an unprecedented financial crisis, Salem lawmakers have yet to call a special session. “What we’ve heard (from policymakers) is that there wasn’t enough urgency to address these issues,” Connors says. “Now, we’re running late.”
• Letter to Oregon leadership [Official]
• In open letter, restaurant industry asks Gov. Kate Brown for financial assistance, COVID-19 testing, cocktails to-go [O]
• Oregon Pauses Indoor and Outdoor Dining at Restaurants and Bars for at Least Two Weeks [EPDX]
• Months later, thousands still waiting for unemployment benefits in Oregon [OPB]
• Stimulus talks are at an impasse as Senate Republicans object to White House package [Vox]
• What the New Iteration of the HEROES Act Would Mean for Restaurants [E]