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In a May 18 roundtable with restaurant executives and industry leaders, the Trump administration signaled a willingness to address flaws in the Paycheck Protection Program — including a requirement that PPP loans be spent within eight weeks in order to qualify for forgiveness — that have proved logistical hurdles for restaurants trying to stay afloat during the pandemic.

The coronavirus crisis, which has wreaked havoc on businesses across the U.S., has proved particularly devastating for restaurants and bars. Two-thirds of restaurant employees have lost their jobs, according to the National Restaurant Association, and OpenTable estimates that one-quarter of U.S. restaurants won’t reopen. The PPP, designed as the CARES Act’s primary lifeline for small businesses, ran out of its original $349 billion in funding within weeks, and was criticized for a loophole that allowed chains like Ruth’s Chris Steak House to receive loans. The Treasury Department updated its guidelines to get big, publicly traded companies to return their loans, and the program was replenished with an additional $310 billion, but small business owners have still reported problems accessing funds. A recent survey conducted by advocacy nonprofits found that Black and Latinx business owners, in particular, have struggled to get approved for PPP loans and other federal aid, the New York Times reports.

At the White House roundtable organized to address such issues, attendees from the restaurant side included:

  • Will Guidara, co-founder of Eleven Madison Park, founding member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC)
  • Thomas Keller, fine-dining restaurateur (The French Laundry, Per Se)
  • Jose Cil, CEO of Restaurant Brands International (Burger King, Popeyes, Tim Hortons)
  • Niren Chaudhary, CEO of Panera Bread
  • James Bodenstedt, CEO of Muy Companies (Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut franchises)
  • Tilman Fertitta, CEO of Landry’s Inc., owner of the Houston Rockets
  • Melvin Rodrigue, CEO of Galatoire’s Restaurants
  • Sean Feeney, co-founder of Grovehouse, owner of New York restaurants Lilia and Misi
  • Tim Love, owner and executive chef of several restaurants in Texas and Tennessee
  • Marvin Irby, interim CEO of National Restaurant Association

The Washington Post points out that the industry representatives present were all male and mostly white (a trend, judging by the similar makeup of the White House’s food and beverage economic revival industry group). Chef Tom Colicchio, a founding member of the IRC, told the Post that the coalition had requested that North Carolina chef Katie Button represent its group, but alleged that someone at the White House had rejected her. “We wanted a woman up there, and they said no,” said Colicchio.

Instead, Guidara of Eleven Madison Park and NoMad fame represented the IRC at the meeting. He, along with Cil, Rodrigue, and other industry representatives, pushed for the timeline to spend PPP funds to be extended from eight weeks to at least 24, setting the deadline in October.

President Donald Trump appeared puzzled about the restaurant owners’ prioritization of a PPP extension on its list of needs, declaring, “I think deductibility is the biggest thing you can possibly do.” But he seemed open to the PPP extension, saying the change “should be easy.” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin revealed that a “technical fix” with bipartisan support is in the works, although he said he wasn’t sure the extension would be as long as 24 weeks.

Other asks from the restaurant representatives included additional PPP funds or a separate stabilization fund, business liability protection to prevent “frivolous lawsuits,” a change to the PPP forgiveness stipulation that 75% of the funds be spent on payroll, help easing the “friction” furloughed employees are experiencing trying to get unemployment benefits, and, on the part of Fertitta, a separate PPP category for large, privately owned restaurants so that owners like him could receive funds without being labeled “the billionaire that took the money from the little business.”

Trump expressed the hope that restaurants like Rodrigue’s in New Orleans would be able to get back to 100 percent capacity “very fast,” as cities and states across the country begin to reopen (despite epidemiologists and other experts warning that it may still be too soon without a virus vaccine or even just robust universal testing).

“We’re going to bring back America and all of America’s great restaurants bigger and better than ever before,” promised Vice President Mike Pence. “And it’s going to be sooner than you think.”

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