By Bradly J. VAnDerStad

As the president of the Downtown Hospitality Group in Providence, I regularly talk with small business owners to get a feel for what life is like during Rhode Island on Pause.

“The traffic right now is horrible. Business is terrible. The mood is grim,” says one.

“From Monday to Thursday, I believe 20 people shopped. We usually have at least 200 shoppers,” said a local retailer.

For those who have decided to stay open, the Pause “has caused a decrease in what are already dismal sales.”

But by now this is all old hat to Rhode Islanders. The folks at the highest echelons of state power are already aware of the devastation this tragedy has caused to our small business community. Everyone knows that Rhode Island businesses- particularly restaurants, who cannot easily transition into new service models- are suffering greatly.

Why then do state grant programs make them justify their need through rigorous application procedures? Why does one of my colleagues have to pay his accountant hundreds of dollars an hour to access the aid our government has allocated for him?

Our hospital systems are well cared for. Lifespan, Rhode Island’s largest hospital group, has received $165 million dollars in federal grants, $24.7 million from Rhode Island’s CARES Act allocation, and $169.9 million in advance payments from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Lifespan turned a $21 million dollar profit in the 2019-2020 fiscal year due to this ample aid; meanwhile our restaurants, bastions of local culture and employment, continue to shutter.

This is why the Downtown Hospitality Group has decided to advocate for a statewide restaurant bailout. We want the state to use CARES Act funding to cut a $10,000 check to every restaurant that depends on in-person dining and paid taxes in 2019. We estimate that this will cost under $30 million dollars, a small fraction of the aid that has already been allocated for business relief. Considering the food service industry supports about 11% of state employment and had estimated sales of 2.7 billion dollars in 2018, we think it is a reasonable amount to request.

The point of our proposal is that it requires as little logistical overhead as possible: officials accept the universality of need in the restaurant industry, and restaurants get relief for up to three locations to keep the program limited to small chains. No applications, no headaches, just state support for one of the most important and most hard-hit economic sectors in the pandemic.

Small restaurant owners represent the best of Rhode Island. Their tenacity and passion have fueled our state’s financial comeback and triumph in tourism. In other bailouts, concerns about corporate greed took center stage: the worst possible outcome with our proposal is that a family in Rhode Island gets financial security into 2021.

While a vaccine is on the way, COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island continue to skyrocket and President-Elect Joe Biden has foreshadowed a ‘very dark winter,’ indicating we are still far from the end of this crisis. Our system has permitted too many Restaurants to close before appropriate help arrived; it is time our leaders acknowledge restaurants’ role and deliver the relief they deserve.

Bradly J. VanDerStad is the president of the Downtown Hospitality Group, a grassroots organization of restaurants and other businesses in Providence with the mission to build productive partnerships, amplify community voices, and advocate for a better business experience in Providence. Learn more at dhgpvd.com.

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