N.J.’s top congressional officials hear plea from hospitality sector: We need aid — now

Fear is D.C. will recess without providing financial package — resulting in more restaurant closures

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” was a common theme in a Zoom conference Tuesday that included top hospitality officials and the top elected federal officials in New Jersey.

Many put it another way: If Congress doesn’t act with assistance for restaurants and hotels before it adjourns next week for the holidays, many such businesses may be closed by the time federal lawmakers take up the issue again — most likely after the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Marilou Halvorsen, the CEO of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, stressed the importance of immediate aid.

“Please do not let perfect stand in the way of getting something done before the New Year,” she said. “Every day, more small businesses permanently close in New Jersey. Thirty-six percent of hospitality businesses do not expect to be in business next year. And that does not include the ones that have already closed.”

Halvorsen said these closures could impact hundreds of thousands.

“This does not just impact business owners, but the 500,000 hotel and restaurant employees here in New Jersey,” she said. “Without additional (Paycheck Protection Program money), 78% of business owners are expected to lay off more employees. Restaurants and hotels mostly hire from within their community. These are New Jersey jobs and New Jersey residents, and they need your help.”

The digital event drew an incredible crowd of elected officials, including both of New Jersey’s U.S. senators (Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker) as well as five members from the state’s delegation in the House of Representatives (Reps. Josh Gottheimer, Andy Kim, Tom Malinowski, Mikie Sherrill and Chris Smith).

All expressed interest in helping — and an understanding of the priority — talking about various bills they have been proposing. Some expressed annoyance that not all of the money previously allocated for pandemic relief had been used.

Menendez said the willingness of so many elected officials to be at the event shows how much they value the industry.

Menendez said he is one of the sponsors of a $220 billion revitalization fund for independent restaurants that could be used for a wide range of expenses, payroll and benefits, food, utilities, rent and maintenance supplies.

“The House has already passed the restaurants act with strong bipartisan support,” he said. “I’m going to keep pushing my colleagues in the Senate to follow suit.”

Sean Kennedy, executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association, said the restaurant industry is in a freefall nationwide.

He said the restaurant industry, which he called the nation’s second-largest private sector employer, was the first to be shut down and has lost more jobs and more revenue than any other industry.

Kennedy noted the impact has been spread equally.

“The average restaurant that is shuttered permanently has been serving the community for 16 years, and 16% of those restaurants that have shuttered had been in existence for 30 years,” he said.

What’s worse, Kennedy said, is that the situation is only getting worse. Colder weather makes outdoor dining less likely at most restaurants — adding to a downward spiral that sees owners paying more money to upgrade their facilities and add safety standards while bringing in less revenue.

Troy Flanagan, the head of government affairs at the American Hotel and Lodging Association, said his industry has been hit even harder, citing three statistics:

  • Every hour Congress doesn’t act, hotels lose 400 jobs;
  • 40% of hotel employees are still not working, meaning the industry’s unemployment rate is at least four times that of the national average.
  • Two-thirds of hotels remain at or below 50% occupancy, which is the threshold by which most hotels can break even and pay their debt.

Kennedy and Flanagan said the need for financial assistance also extends to protection against lawsuits, saying any hospitality company that follows safety protocols should be given safe harbor against COVID lawsuits.

Kennedy said he’s encouraged by the $908 billion stimulus proposal from moderates — which would include another round of PPP and liability protections.

“If we can end the year with that, it is going to allow so many restaurants to move forward to survive the winter months,” he said. “We view this as a down payment on a larger recovery plan.”

One that would hold off catastrophe, he said.

“If Congress leaves town without doing anything and doesn’t come back to really move legislation until President-elect Biden is sworn in Jan. 20, more restaurants will close,” he said. “The situation is dire. It’s getting worse.”