About 16 percent of independent restaurants here have closed down since the beginning of the pandemic, but Queens leaders are hopeful a new economic initiative will prevent the remaining ones from shutting their doors.
Since Monday, restaurateurs have been able to apply for direct aid from the newly opened Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a $28.6 billion reserve established by the newly enacted American Rescue Plan Act. The money comes in the form of a grant, so struggling businesses don’t have to worry about paying the government back.
“In the darkest times when Queens was the epicenter of the epicenter ... we depended on our business owners and our leaders on the ground to tell us what Congress needed to do,” Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing) said April 30 in front of Kew Gardens Hills’ Lake Pavilion to announce the passage of the RRF.
“If you walk down any commercial strip here in Queens the one thing you’ll always see is restaurants. From Bell Boulevard to Main Street, Myrtle Avenue to Union Turnpike, Metropolitan Avenue and Queens Boulevard, independent restaurants are everywhere.”
The Queens Chamber of Commerce estimates that of the 6,000 Queens small restaurants that existed before the pandemic, roughly 1,000 have closed their doors for good.
According to a report from state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, the city restaurant industry lost 226,000 jobs because of the pandemic, and sales dropped an average of 71 percent during the three-month period of March, April and May of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
Those that are still open are struggling to hang on.
“We are all experiencing the unspeakable difficulties. It’s not only for us, it’s everybody. Each one of you,” said Yoonjoo Lee of the Murray Hill Merchants Association, which represents 70 small stores in the Flushing neighborhood. “We cannot continue to keep open businesses without help. I’ll repeat it and repeat it and repeat it.”
Lee went on to say that she’s finally come to understand the American Dream even in these times of crisis because of Meng’s advocacy to pass federal relief.
Grants under the RRF program are tax-free. Restaurateurs can put the money toward a wider array of expenses than the Paycheck Protection Program allowed, including rent, construction and maintenance. Businesses that have already received a PPP loan are also eligible for an RRF grant.
All independent food and drink businesses, such as food trucks, breweries and caterers, are encouraged to apply. Grants are given based on total loss of revenue between 2019 and 2020. Each restaurant can be granted as much as $5 million per location
Meng urged Queens restaurateurs to act fast and register at restaurants.sba.gov before the funds run out.
“In Queens we deserve more. We’ve been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus and the economy and we want to make sure our restaurants all around the borough are getting their fair share back,” Meng said.