D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser this week announced plans for the city to provide $100 million in aid for hospitality and entertainment businesses that are still reeling from a protracted public health crisis, with restaurants set to receive the largest portion of the fund.
The D.C. Council passed the Business Support Grants Emergency Amendment Act in July, authorizing the city to launch a new program it’s calling “the Bridge Fund.” The city is setting aside a $35 million slice of that pie for up to 700 restaurants that will receive $10,000 to $50,000 apiece. Another $30 million will go to hotels, $20 million will go to entertainment businesses, and $15 million will go to retail businesses.
The $100 million fund combines $20 million in leftover federal money from the Cares Act with $80 million from the D.C. contingency cash reserves the city has in place for “nonrecurring or unforeseen needs, including severe weather or other natural disasters, unexpected obligations created by federal law, new public safety or health needs after the budget process has occurred, or opportunities to achieve cost savings.”
While major cities such as San Francisco and Chicago have shut down indoor dining amid a wave of spiking coronavirus cases, D.C. has yet to roll back restaurant rules from its current Phase 2 reopening guidelines (50 percent capacity indoors and outdoors, 6 feet of distance between tables, no standing, no bartop service). Maryland has reduced indoor dining capacity limits on state and county levels, and Virginia moved earlier this week to cut off alcohol sales in bars and restaurants at 10 p.m.
Bowser said in a news conference this week that D.C. could ramp up restrictions “soon,” but the city has also been more conservative in moving through its reopening phases than neighboring governments. The U.S. as a whole has seen a 20 percent spike in cases over the past week. D.C. has seen a 42 percent spike in that time. As of Wednesday, November 18, the daily case rate and rate of transmission both indicated “substantial” community spread levels on par with the first phase of D.C.’s reopening criteria.
Based on contract-tracing data the city collected from November 6 through November 12, 25.8 percent of people who tested positive for COVID-19 reported they had eaten at a restaurant within two weeks of showing symptoms or receiving results. The city’s contact tracers do not ask people who tested positive if they ate outside or inside, where the risk of exposure is higher.
In comments made to the Washington Post, Kathy Hollinger, president and CEO of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington indicated that local industry leaders are already bracing themselves for more government intervention
. “This grant is about allowing a pause to happen if needed and just sustain through what we know will be a really hard winter,” Hollinger told the Post. The city reports that its “hospitality and leisure” sectors have lost 30,100 jobs since January 2020.
Hotels will receive the first batch of local stimulus money from the Bridge Fund, with grant applications expected to open Monday, November 23. Restaurants will be able to start applying for grants December 7. The initial announcement did not include information on what type of restaurants would be eligible to apply, or spending requirements for the Bridge Fund money.
D.C. has already rolled out multiple programs to throw lifelines to struggling restaurants. The DC Small Business Microgrants Program, started March 17, reported paying out more than $10 million to 1,028 restaurant and food service businesses. Events DC, the city’s sports and entertainment authority, and RAMW partnered to fund about $9.9 million more in microgrants. Independently owned D.C. restaurants with a maximum of 50 employees were able to access a Small Business Resiliency Fund that doled out $3 million to cover emergency operational costs.
Through November 12, a “Streatery Winter Ready Grant” program from the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture had paid out $3.25 million to 542 D.C. restaurants. That financial commitment, covering purchases like tents and heaters, would represent a sunk cost if D.C. moved to ban outdoor dining.