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Restaurants need another federal rescue fast

But we favor making proof of vaccination mandatory for almost all indoor public activities, including dining. Vaccinated people should be entitled to privileges that are withheld from unvaccinated people.

Baseball fans congregate at Sluggers sports bar across from Wrigley Field before the start of the nearly-sold-out matchup between the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals on June 11. In June, Chicago and the rest of the state of Illinois lifted nearly all COVID-19 restrictions, allowing for no capacity limits for bars, restaurants, gyms, or other large venues and no social distancing requirements.
Baseball fans congregate at Sluggers sports bar across from Wrigley Field before the start of the nearly-sold-out matchup between the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals on June 11. That month, Chicago and the rest of the state of Illinois lifted nearly all COVID-19 restrictions, allowing for no capacity limits for bars, restaurants, gyms, or other large venues and no social distancing requirements.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Restaurants, as much or more than any other businesses, have suffered greatly during the pandemic. They have been forced to close for indoor dining for months at a time, struggled to find workers and been hit by higher wholesale food prices.

As of March of this year, more than 10% of the nation’s restaurants had been forced to close permanently, unable to limp along any longer, including dozens of restaurants in Chicago.

Now a group of Chicago aldermen are calling for a new restriction on Chicago restaurants — a requirement that anybody who dines indoors must show proof of vaccination — and the restaurant industry is understandably up in arms. Impose that rule, they warn, and watch as many more restaurants close their doors for good, especially as the weather turns colder and outdoor dining becomes less of an option.

Our own view is that proof of vaccination should be mandatory for people who want to participate in almost any indoor public activity. Vaccinated people should be entitled to privileges that are withheld from unvaccinated people.

If we are ever going to beat this pandemic, we must get tougher on the foolishly unvaccinated.

But there also is no question this should be done in a way that, whenever possible, minimizes the harm done to small businesses. And with respect to restaurants, that should mean a generous replenishing of federal pandemic rescue funds — in the form of grants, not loans — to help thousands of independent restaurants stay afloat.

As part of the American Rescue Plan signed into law by President Joe Biden in March 2021, a $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund was created to come to the rescue of struggling restaurants.

More than 370,000 restaurant owners applied for the grants — powerful proof that the industry was being hammered — requesting a total of $75 billion. Unfortunately, only about 105,000 businesses ultimately got a piece of the rescue money, with demand dramatically outstripping supply. The Restaurant Revitalization Fund had been emptied out by June 30.

Now Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, is proposing that Congress pour an additional $60 billion into the restaurant rescue fund, new money that can’t come soon enough. We actually believe Congress should do even more — add $90 billion to the fund, as many experts in the restaurant industry have called for — to head off more restaurant closures.

A survey this month by the Independent Restaurant Coalition found that 82% of the nation’s restaurants fear they will close their doors if there is no additional federal rescue funding.

The Illinois Restaurant Association in the past has commended Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her administration for communicating well with local restaurant owners, distributing grants and leading the way to fully reopening restaurants back in June — before any other large American city. But restaurant owners warn that requiring eateries to demand proof of vaccination for indoor dining, a safety measured proposed by eight aldermen in a Sept. 9 letter to Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, could be devastating.

“We have always been about the health and safety of our team members and customers, but we should think about the small restaurants that can’t turn away a party of five, if two people are not vaccinated,” Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, told the Sun-Times Editorial Board. “Turning them away means they could lose a $150 bill that could have made their night.”

Nobody should take those concerns lightly. We sure don’t.

But we think the best way to help the restaurant industry would be new infusion of federal rescue funds, big and fast. To allow the pandemic to drag on or grow worse, as new variants of the coronavirus emerge, by going soft on public safety measures would, in the long run, only hurt the restaurant industry — and all of us — more.

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