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'Congress needs to help us out': Florida restaurants struggling through COVID-19 hope for federal relief

Since the pandemic began, more than 110,000 restaurants have permanently shut their doors.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Since the pandemic started, the National Restaurant Association reports more than 110,000 restaurants have permanently shut their doors, and local eateries hope the RESTAURANTS Act will prevent them from suffering a similar fate.

“The lawmakers need to know postponing this will cause some of the small entrepreneurs tend not to be able to make it to 2021,” said Elihu Brayboy, co-owner of Chief Creole’s Café in south St. Petersburg.

The RESTAURANTS Act is a $120 billion bill that would help restaurants with less than 20 locations cover costs including rent, mortgages, payroll and other necessities. There would be special emphasis on grants for businesses with less than $1.5 million in annual revenues, and for those owned by women and minority groups.

“That makes us feel included,” said Elihu Brayboy, who almost missed out on funding through the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program after his company’s bank denied his business’ application. He and his wife, Carolyn Brayboy, were able to later get funding through a smaller lender.

One version of the bill was rolled in with the HEROES Act, which passed the House, but a different version of the bill has not passed through the Senate. With the year winding down, restaurateurs are concerned the critical funding might not be a possibility.

“It would be a godsend to so many of us that need it,” said John Horne, owner of the Anna Maria Oyster Bar and restaurant director of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. “You know, we've been struggling so badly this year.”

Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy said they have been hit twice as hard by the pandemic because of their location. They are in a zip code with one of St. Petersburg’s highest rates of COVID-19. So, while other restaurants have reopened for in-person dining, the Brayboys said they have been discouraged from doing the same.

“We get calls every day asking for reservations to come down inside, and we have to say no to that because we'd rather stay healthy physically and meet another day,” said Elihu Brayboy.

However, with each day that passes, business becomes more strained for thousands of restaurants across the Tampa Bay area.

“I'm still 25% down from my amount of staff I had in March. So, I still have 100 people I haven't brought back yet,” said Horne. “Our sales versus last year are right around anywhere from 77 to 83 percent.”

Horne said he would like to bring back more workers, but lagging sales complicates the process.

“There's a lot of restaurants that have gone out of business and won't come back,” said Horne. “So, we don't need more to join the ranks of the restaurants that are closed…”

Carolyn Brayboy agrees.

“Neighborhood restaurants, small mom and pop are really the fabric of the community,” she said.

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