Unforgivable? Restaurants Fear Loans Won’t Bring Relief

By JOYCE M. ROSENBERG AP Business Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Restaurants owners across the U.S. are worried that a loan from the government’s coronavirus relief program could wind up being a burden instead of a blessing. 

The Paycheck Protection Program has disbursed more than 4.3 million loans worth more than half a trillion dollars to small businesses in about six weeks. A PPP loan can be forgiven if owners spend the money within eight weeks of receiving it and put at least 75% of it toward employees’ pay and the rest toward rent, mortgage interest and utilities. 

For those who own and run restaurants, however, those terms can seem out of sync with the realities of their business. Many restaurants either remain closed or are doing just a fraction of their former business as cities and states only begin to lift stay-at-home orders. Instead of essentially paying workers not to work, owners might want to hold onto the loan money or use it for more pressing needs; but doing so carries a risk. 

Sarah Trubnick’s restaurant in San Francisco has been closed since mid-March. She recently got a relief loan — but she’s hardly celebrating. 

Trubnick hopes to reopen The Barrel Room within the next eight weeks, but it will cost thousands of dollars to buy food and equipment needed to be operational again. She needs to use some of the loan money to pay those expenses. But that portion of the loan might not be forgiven, leaving her with a big debt to pay off in two years. 

“The terms are not realistic for us,” says Trubnick. “I think this is going to leave us in a worse position than before.” 

The restaurant industry has been one of the hardest-hit by the virus outbreak. Thousands have been shut down completely, which means no revenue coming in but bills like rent, utilities and insurance still to be paid. Many others have been restricted by state and local governments to serving customers with takeout and delivery, but that is only a small fraction of their usual business. And reopening doesn’t mean a return of the lunch and dinner crowds — social distancing requirements means restaurants can’t serve the usual number of diners. 

All these obstacles have stymied an industry that operates on the thinnest of margins. The shutdowns and curtailed revenue led to the layoffs of 6 million workers during March and April.

Many restaurants fear for their survival, according to a study released in April by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study found that restaurateurs believed they had a 72% chance of survival if the crisis caused by the virus outbreak lasted a month, but if it lasted four months, they believed they had only a 30% chance of survival. And at six months, a 15% chance.

A PPP loan could be expected to improve to odds — under the right conditions. 

A report by the Small Business Administration’s inspector general’s office released Friday, while not mentioning the restaurant industry, found fault with the rules and predicted they would force tens of thousands of businesses to have to repay part of their loans.

According to the report released Friday, the law that created the loan program didn’t specify the amount of loan money that must be used for employees’ pay; the SBA added the restriction. The SBA responded in the report that “75% is an appropriate percentage” given the law’s focus on keeping workers paid and employed.

The report also noted that while the law allowed for loan terms to be as long as 10 years, the SBA imposed the requirement that loans be repaid within two years, making payments substantially larger. 

“The Paycheck Protection Program is a great program, but it’s not working for restaurants,” says Sean Kennedy, an executive vice president at the National Restaurant Association, an industry group. 

Restaurant owners may be getting some help from Congress. A bill introduced by House Democrats Tuesday would give small businesses including restaurants more options and breathing room in using their loan proceeds.

The House bill would allow business owners to use their loan money for whatever bills they need to cover. The bill would also give businesses 24 weeks or until Dec. 31, whichever is earlier, to spend the money.

Currently, the eight-week window for spending the money poses a dilemma. If, for example, restaurants recalled all their workers after receiving a loan in mid-April, they’d use up the money before government officials allow them to be fully operational. At the end of the eight weeks, many wouldn’t be able to afford all their staffers and they’d have to lay them off again.

“It would be wiser to use those funds in a few months as restrictions lessen and we have more income from the dining room,” says Michelle Courtright, owner of Fig & Farro, a restaurant in Minneapolis. She has struggled to meet the time and payroll requirements because key staffers decided not to return to work out of health concerns.

“I spent several weeks of valuable PPP time just hiring and trying to get a new staff together,” Courtright says. Her restaurant is doing only takeout and delivery service while she waits to be able to reopen for sit-down dining; in the meantime, her revenue is down 90 percent.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin acknowledged Monday that many restaurants wanted to hold on to their money and use it when it’s most beneficial for them. 

“We’ll look at a technical fix,” he said, speaking in an interview on CNBC.

The Democratic bill would also give business owners more time to repay their loan amounts that aren’t forgiven, a minimum of five years.

Kennedy called the House proposal “a strong step toward making the PPP more suitable for the unique business conditions of the nation’s restaurants.”

The industry group is seeking a separate $240 billion recovery fund for the restaurant and food service industries.

Dave Orenstein already knows his restaurant chain won’t get full forgiveness for its loan, and he can’t even estimate at this point how much Fish City Grill will end up owing. The Dallas-based chain began reopening May 1, and while the majority of his company’s 450 employees are back, he doesn’t have enough business to rehire all of them.

“If the loan is not forgiven, it would be virtually impossible to pay the funds back in two years,” says Orenstein, president of the 20-restaurant company. 

Pictured: The empty outdoor seating area at the closed Franciscan Crab Restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Restaurant owners and executives across the country fear they’ll have to repay thousands of dollars in potentially forgivable loans from the Paycheck Protection Program because rules written by the Small Business Administration are out of sync with the reality these businesses face; many are still shut down by state and local government orders, and those that have reopened have drastically reduced revenue. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, file)

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