WINCHESTER — U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10th, met with several local business owners Thursday evening at the Hideaway Cafe on the Loudoun Street Mall to hear how they've dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic and to discuss how they can seek financial relief from the federal government.
Kaine asked the business owners, most of them affiliated with the restaurant industry, how effective the CARES Act, American Rescue Plan and Paycheck Protection Program have been in providing aid.
He said a $28 billion component of the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress is dedicated to the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which opened Monday to applicants. The fund provides emergency assistance to eligible restaurants, bars, and other qualifying businesses impacted by COVID-19 and can provide up to $10 million in grants per business.
Wexton acknowledged there were issues with the first round of PPP funding. She said many hard-hit businesses could not access the program in its first round. She said the Restaurant Revitalization Fund is designed to keep that from happening.
“For the first 21 days, anybody [can] apply, but the only ones that are going to be processed are those from small, minority, women-owned businesses and economically disadvantaged businesses so that they don’t get shut out as has happened in the past,” Wexton said. “What we’ve been trying to do is get you the help so you can keep your doors open.”
Diana Patterson, a member of the Virginia Latino Advisory Board, said both PPP rounds favored larger corporations. But she praised the Restaurant Revitalization Fund for prioritizing minority-owned businesses and small businesses for the first 21 days, as “they tend to get info last.”
Winchester Mayor David Smith said that while some local restaurants were able to easily transition their business models to takeout last year when the pandemic hit, many could not. He said the community has been trying to do its part to support local businesses and is confident business will return to downtown Winchester later this year in response to pent-up consumer demand.
“What’s happening now is more and more people are getting vaccinated and they can’t wait to get out,” Smith said.
Lanita Byrne, who owns the Espresso Bar and Cafe on the Loudoun Street Mall, said she made the difficult decision last year to close for two months since people tend to linger in a cafe, and being open could have contributed to the spread of the coronavirus. She said she took “quite a loss” and went through a grieving process. She also said there were hurdles in getting unemployment benefits.
She said “there is light at the end of the tunnel" and that federal aid has helped.
“We are taking life a day at a time,” Byrne said. “The rules can change. You can have a rule one day and make plans and the very next day there’s a rule change. So we feel very fortunate to be a recipient twice of the PPP.”
Although she favors a minimum wage increase, Byrne said she's concerned "it’s going to have a trickle effect. We are going to be forced to raise prices.”
In Virginia, the minimum wage increased from $7.25 an hour to $9.50 an hour on May 1. It will increase again to $11 on Jan. 1 and to $12 on Jan. 1, 2023.
Adrian Gomez, owner of Manolete's Taqueria Gourmet in Frederick County, said the business opened in 2019 and didn't have much time to generate a significant profit before COVID-19 hit the area in March 2020. He said his business partner’s hair “turned gray,” but strong community support helped the restaurant survive.
“I don’t know how we made it, but we are still standing strong,” Gomez said. “ … I think we’ve got really good customers. They still remember us after all of these restrictions.”
He added: “If we can survive through this, I think we can survive through everything.”
Hideaway Cafe owner Victoria Kidd said she lost at least $100,000 in revenue in 2020 compared to the previous year and cried 16 times. Fortunately, with more people getting vaccinated and COVID restrictions loosening, Kidd predicted that “we are on the verge of the best summer we’ve ever had.”
Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday that Virginia is aiming to lift COVID-19 restrictions by June 15, as long as case numbers continue to decline.
Kaine encouraged everyone to get vaccinated and said June 15 is a good goal to shoot for.