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Texas restaurants say they still need help after a federal COVID relief fund ran out

A restaurant in Austin announces its reopening, amid the gradual lifting of restrictions on Texas businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gabriel C. Pérez
A restaurant in Austin announces its reopening, amid the gradual lifting of restrictions on Texas businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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More than 60,000 Texas restaurants stayed in business during the pandemic thanks to a federal COVID-19 relief fund that has since run out of money, according to a national analysis.

The lack of new funding means more than 12,000 Texas restaurants are in danger of closing, according to the Texas Restaurant Association.

National research presented by the TRA found that the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a $26.6 billion pandemic relief program that closed in July of 2021, saved more than 900,000 jobs nationally, including 62,000 in Texas alone.

Out of the thousands of restaurants that secured a grant from the fund, 96% were able to stay in business, according to the study, which was originally published by the National Restaurant Association.

"Restaurants have gone above and beyond to safely serve their customers, both on premise and through new, off-premise innovations like curbside pickup and alcohol to-go," said Dr. Emily Williams Knight, president and CEO of the TRA. "Despite all of these efforts, thousands of small and independent Texas restaurants will be forced to close for good if Congress does not replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund now."

Knight made the comments during a virtual press conference Wednesday, which argued that underfunding of the program has left more than 100,000 Texas employees at stake.

The Restaurant Revitalization Fund provided relief to restaurants significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The grants helped make up for lost revenue, kept employees on the payroll and repaid accumulated debts.

However, due to overwhelming demand, the program was unable to fund all qualified applicants with the original sum provided under the American Rescue Plan Act.

The TRA was joined by a group of restaurant owners and operators calling on Congress to replenish the fund, which in total provided assistance to more than 105,000 restaurants nationwide.

Texas restaurants say they're facing a tipping point, as high infection rates from the omicron variant make people hesitant to dine out. That, combined with workforce shortages, supply chain disruptions and inflation, has left the restaurant industry in what is now a long-term crisis.

Tracy Vaught, owner of the H-Town Restaurant Group in Houston — which includes Houston restaurants Hugo's, Backstreet Cafe, Caracol and Xochi — said her business is still facing challenges that began with COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020.

"We're closed on Mondays, we're closed Sunday nights and we're closed on weekday lunches," said Vaught. "We really need those shifts in order to be profitable. We've been hanging in there, but the pandemic has brought us all to our knees."

After the omicron variant hit during the holiday season, 81% of Texas restaurant operators reported a decline in customer demand for indoor dining during the past few weeks, according to the recent National Restaurant Association survey.

Chris Berry, operating partner of River Smith's Chicken & Catfish in Lubbock, said he was excited when both his main restaurant and food truck were approved for RRF funding.

Then he got the bad news: the fund had quickly run out.

Now, plans for both businesses are on hold, Berry said.

"The past 24 months has probably aged us about 10 years, just with the daily hustle added to the labor and supply chain shortages," said Berry. "To be able to plate your meal and to get it to your customer is a growing challenge every day."

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