The omicron variant had just begun to ebb away from its January peak when a group of restaurant owners and workers scored a meeting with top advisers to President Biden. The advocates were seeking federal aid to help their beleaguered industry weather yet another virus spike. The Biden advisers agreed to the meeting at the behest of allies on Capitol Hill, who recommended the White House hear directly from the sector as Democrats weighed policy in the wake of the variant’s havoc.
The meeting, organized by the Independent Restaurant Coalition, had been scheduled for 30 minutes. It lasted an hour. Once the parties connected over Zoom, the conversation quickly devolved into recriminations, accusations, and a charge that the administration was letting down a pandemic-ravaged industry that needed help.
“They repeatedly said, ‘Restaurants are OK,’ and I think we made it clear that restaurants are not OK,” says one meeting attendee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to Rolling Stone.
The industry advocates wanted Biden to replenish a $26.8 billion emergency fund intended to reimburse restaurant owners for pandemic-era revenue losses. The fund, passed as part of the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package last March, had run out after just a third of applicants received grants. The Biden economic advisers, Bharat Ramamurti and Gene Sperling, expressed sympathy, but pushed back, according to industry sources who attended the meeting. The economy is improving, they said, and the $40 billion they were seeking was too high a price to pay. They also raised concerns about how that money would benefit the industry’s employees, front-line workers for whom none of the emergency funding had been specifically earmarked.
That’s when things got ugly. The industry representatives criticized the White House for taking pride in the emergency relief fund while so many restaurants remained on the skids. Owners fought back against accusations that the fund would line restaurant owners’ pockets. Workers present took pains to describe how difficult working conditions have been during pandemic peaks. An employee of Zingerman’s, a beloved deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, attended the call — prompting one advocate to warn Sperling, an Ann Arbor native, that his hometown deli and his favorite sandwich were in danger of disappearing forever if aid didn’t appear.
Dwayne Allen, a restaurant owner in downtown Phoenix, described the White House’s attitude toward his plight as “indifferent,” and he said as much when he attended the call. “I served my country, and I was told my government was in this with me,” Allen, a veteran, told the attendees. “It’s quite clear to me after this call that you’re not.”
The White House disputes Allen’s characterization. “We thought the small-restaurant owners on the call made a very moving case for relief, and we were the furthest things from indifferent to the struggles they are facing,” Ramamurti and Sperling said in a joint statement. They’re closely monitoring how small businesses recover from the latest wave and “have not taken anything off the table,” they said. “But,” they added, “it is true that we are facing multiple compelling demands right now affecting the health and economic well-being of tens of millions of families, and we must weigh how those priorities trade off as we evaluate legislation.”
The pandemic persists, as does its long tail of economic devastation for jobs and sectors hardest hit. That reality has surfaced a key tension facing the White House and congressional Democrats hoping to tout a strong economy under their unified control of government: The White House and Democratic lawmakers are short on both the political will and capital to rectify what remains unfinished from their pandemic relief efforts.
Persistent inequality defines the U.S. economy, but there’s strong signs of growth and promise in the midst of persistent individual suffering. As President Biden ends his first year in office, unemployment is low, wages are high, and job openings abound. The omicron surge has receded, and governors across the country have signaled they’ll soon loosen pandemic restrictions that have suppressed vulnerable industries. Rising inflation has complicated the success story, but the Biden administration has set its sights on corralling the virus to address ongoing economic woes.
A promising future, however, doesn’t remedy existing harms. A different group of restaurant workers and owners rallied with Democratic lawmakers outside the Capitol on Tuesday afternoon to also demand financial relief — but only for restaurants that pay a full, not subminimum, wage. Gym and hotel owners, similarly stymied by omicron, have pushed for funding, too. The emergency paid-leave provisions Congress passed last winter expired in the fall, leaving 33 million workers without protection as the latest variant swept the nation. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) has pushed for additional relief for schools and front-line workers, sectors that he says still lack the resources necessary to address the pandemics’ physical and psychological toll on students, teachers, and caregivers. “A Covid package focused on the care economy is much, much needed,” Bowman says.
Talk of remedying these ongoing concerns have come in fits and starts. A bipartisan group of senators had discussed an economic relief package as omicron emerged last winter, but talks have not resumed in the new year. Bowman says he’s had promising conversations with the White House on the need for additional relief focused on caregivers and other front-line workers, but nothing concrete has emerged. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said they are exploring “every possible path to make progress on paid leave” in a joint statement last Friday. A group of moderate Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the White House on Tuesday urging the president to support a targeted small-business relief bill.
But the best guess among Democratic lawmakers is that if the White House makes a request for supplemental pandemic aid — it’s rumored that something could happen in the coming weeks — it will focus on public-health needs: testing, treatments, protection equipment, and vaccinations. “Right now, it’s a little bit of silence,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), who’s leading a request for global vaccine delivery, says of the White House’s position. “The honest truth is that we can’t get anything unless we get 10 Republicans [in the Senate] to agree to an emergency supplemental. The part of this I’m trying to figure out is, ‘What are we going to get done?’”
Indeed, any emergency Covid relief funding would require Republican support. That’s been in short supply, especially when it comes to propping up the economy. The economic uptick and its attendant inflation have armed Republicans with arguments against more cash infusions, says Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), the chair of Congress’ chief economic policy committee. The bill to replenish the restaurant fund has six Republican co-sponsors — something, but not enough to guarantee its passage. “It’s going to be a very difficult political case to be made,” Beyer explains. “Republicans are pushing hard on the inflation impact, and Democrats are worried about feeding that.”
And the White House has the rest of its legislative agenda to consider. The $40 billion fund that restaurant owners seek, for example, could cover nearly five years’ worth of free community college, a top White House priority that First Lady Jill Biden revealed was off the table on Monday. Democrats are still reeling from the December demise of the Build Back Better Act, its sweeping $1.75 trillion domestic spending bill. Whatever priorities end up with a second life will need the support of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), a deficit hawk who’s keen on every program being paid for by taxes or other savings. A $40 billion restaurant relief fund does not meet that criteria.
As what’s politically possible comes into focus, the White House, for now, can only really give the ailing industries its empathy. During the White House’s meeting with the restaurant-industry advocates, Sperling told the group the Biden administration really did support their dreams and their jobs. “I hope to see that come to fruition,” one industry representative replied.