October 26, 2020

What will your city be like without restaurants? Mayors weigh in

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said, “Restaurants have literally taken it on the chin. We have to do everything we can to assist them. Many won't make it, but hopefully we can … minimize that number.”

The National Restaurant Association joined with members from the U.S. Conference of Mayors to talk about finding ways to help restaurants stay in business as COVID-19 continues to ravage the small business landscape.

The mayors and Kennedy, executive vice president of government affairs, discussed potential relief measures, including grants to help defray the costs of winterizing outdoor dining options, fighting for additional PPP funding, and easing regulations around alcohol-to-go service.

Kennedy explained that the Association is committed to aiding the industry in what is the largest existential crisis it has ever faced.

The biggest challenge facing traditional restaurants is that they’re designed to run at their fullest capacity, Kennedy said. “When we see 50% capacity limits, 25% limits, it doesn't matter how much takeout or outdoor seating you do; you are losing money. The question is how much business can you do to get by?”

Kennedy urged the mayors to identify how restaurants can aggressively, but safely, expand capacity. “Let science and common sense control it, not hysteria. We're looking for some consistency. We want to make sure we can operate safely, but we also need to make sure we're at a level where we can continue to survive.”

Greg Fischer, mayor of Louisville, Ky., and current president of the US Conference of Mayors, said his administration is doing everything it can to help restaurateurs get through the pandemic so they can begin to grow their businesses and thrive again. Those measures include expanding outdoor seating options, increasing access to available grants, and reducing their Alcoholic Beverage Control license renewal fees for on-site consumption.

“I know I can speak for every mayor when I talk about the importance of the restaurant scene to our cities,” Fischer said. “In many ways, they define who we are. Local, independent restaurants contribute so much to the unique character of our cities; national chains are incredibly popular and create millions of jobs.”

Sylvester Turner, mayor of Houston, said he fully supports Congress passing its bill to appropriate $130 billion in restaurant industry aid. In Houston, the restaurant industry employed more than 300,000 people at 11,000 restaurants, so closures and layoffs related to the pandemic have had dire ramifications for the city’s economy.

“Regardless of where you live, restaurants are vital to all of us,” he said. “Restaurants have literally taken it on the chin. We have to do everything we can to assist them. Many won't make it, but hopefully we can do everything possible to minimize that number.”

Turner encouraged people to dine in, take out, order food for delivery—anything to give restaurants business.

Rosalynn Bliss, mayor of Grand Rapids, Mich., said winter will affect restaurants in her city. One plan for the city is to provide $200,000 in grants to help operators winterize their businesses. That includes purchasing heaters, canopies, and other items to help extend comfortable outdoor dining.

Cincinnati mayor John Cranley said his administration is unveiling a $4 million stimulus package that allows independent restaurateurs to apply for up to $10,000 to help them get through the winter.

The city also ramped up support for takeout and delivery options, including imposing a reduction of third-party delivery fees, and making what were temporary street and lane closures permanent so the city’s restaurants can expand curbside pickup operations, an especially important option come winter.

Mayor Hillary Schieve of Reno, Nev., recommended that mayors make every effort to streamline the application process for any grants they offer to already stressed-out restaurateurs.

“Make the process easy,” she said. “Be very careful about how you structure some of those grants and the process you make restaurant owners [go] through. As mayors, you all know this is something you can impact.”