CONCORD — With cold weather ending the outdoor dining season, representatives of the state’s tourism industry called for a second round of federal pandemic funding in a conference call last Friday with U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
Saying she's been stymied in getting the funding due to a failure of negotiations with Senate Republican leadership, Shaheen said the point of Friday's call was to get feedback from hospitality leaders.
“So far, we have not heard anything from the Majority leader (Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.) and the White House about their interest in trying to get another package as soon as possible. I am concerned about what that means and I'm thinking about what ways we might have to help encourage some movement on this so that people understand how difficult the situation is and what's going to happen,” said Shaheen (D-N.H.), who was re-elected to a third term on Nov. 3.
She said some positive news was Republican Sen. Mark Rubio of Florida was scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday with the team of legislators that negotiated the Payroll Protection Program last spring.
“That is a positive movement, but we need some movement at the top,” said Shaheen, adding she's aware of the challenges that the industry is facing.
Mike Somers, executive director of the Concord-based New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, thanked Shaheen for listening to their concerns.
“I think you recognize correctly that the next three, four or five months are really going to be the toughest stretch. And so, we are obviously very concerned about what that looks like for the industry,” said Somers.
"We're going to need this second round of relief if we legitimately want to see the industry survive in a meaningful capacity,” he added.
Shaheen said with reduced travel and visits to dining establishments for the holidays, she is well aware of the need to get some relief.
“I do think to the extent that people are in contact with senators from other states, that's really helpful. We need to get a bipartisan approach here and that's why I find the Rubio meeting coming up encouraging. There seems to be recognition, at least among the Small Business Committee. I've talked to (Maine Republican Sen.) Susan Collins; I know she shares this concern that we need to do something before the new administration takes office because as you point out, the next few months are really critical,” Shaheen said.
Tom Boucher, CEO of Great NH Restaurants, a chain that includes T-Bones and Cactus Jack's, said outdoor dining accounted for about 35 percent of his restaurants’ revenue in the third quarter. But business was down at about 30 percent at every location this week, and more losses are expected, he said.
“The third quarter was actually good for us; we did well,” Boucher told Shaheen, “and the only reason we did well was for outdoor dining, which comprised about 35 percent of our revenue.
But, he said, "It’s over now until it gets warm again.”
He added that his restaurants will have spent $500,000 on COVID-19 expenses for items such as air purifiers, tables, chairs and plastic dividers by year’s end.
Looking ahead, he said he expects it will take another year before people can get back to being comfortable going out to eat.
“The short story is that we’re going to need more help,” said Boucher, who says his company has been in business for 36 years and has nearly 1,000 employees.
“I mean, if we don’t make it …" he said, and his voice trailed off.
In response to a question from Shaheen, he said restaurants circulate indoor air every 12 minutes.
Jay Bolduc, managing operator at Great NH Restaurants, thanked Shaheen for her work this past spring.
Backing up what Boucher said, he noted that the “30 percent loss in sales once outdoor dining goes away is really the difference between a small profit and an unsustainable loss.”
Shaheen said legislation from the U.S. House has also been introduced in the Senate as the HEROES Small Business Lifeline Act, "and it does include the Restaurants Act, which is designed to help restaurants and also the Save Our Stages Act, which is targeted to the entertainment industry. So if we can pass that, that would provide a lot of help.”
Bolduc said he would also like to see front-line hospitality workers included in early rounds of vaccination once they become available.
Steve Duprey of the Duprey Companies, which owns the Grappone Conference Center in Concord, said he was more concerned about the drop in business travel, which is not expected to get back to 2019 levels until late 2023.
He asked Shaheen to work to allow changes to Small Business Administration loans to allow hotels and restaurants to get long-term low interest rate financing.
Shaheen agreed there needs to be more flexibility with how funds can be spent if a second round does get approved in Congress.
She said there has been much discussion of reducing to $300 the $600 a week benefits that went to unemployed workers.
But she said whatever moves forward will likely be hotly debated and that she will share what she has heard from New Hampshire businesses with her colleagues in the Senate.