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Cardin: COVID relief for restaurants still a work in progress | READER COMMENTARY

The owner of the Wharf Rat in Fells Point said that during the coronavirus pandemic the restaurant "was unable to maintain the level of customer service on which it had built its reputation," and was forced to close, despite receiving federal grants. File. (Wesley Case/Baltimore Sun)

As a lifelong Baltimorean and chair of the U.S. Senate Small Business Committee, I read The Baltimore Sun article, “The Restaurant Revitalization Fund gave Baltimore-area businesses grants to stay open. So why did some close?” (Aug. 12), with great interest.

Through my leadership position, I fought to include the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF) in the American Rescue Plan because restaurants and bars were among the hardest hit small businesses during the pandemic.

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Prior to the enactment of the American Rescue Plan on March 11, 2021, I heard from countless restaurant owners who needed help in the form of grants — not loans — to make it through the pandemic. I am proud of RRF which saved thousands of restaurants and bars nationwide including thousands in Maryland and Baltimore.

Unfortunately, there are still nearly 180,000 applicants who have yet to receive a grant. And worse, my attempts to forward bipartisan legislation to replenish RRF to provide grants to the outstanding applicants have been blocked.

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If the story makes anything clear, it is that the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the food services industry; Congress was right to provide support; and the job remains unfinished.

I am greatly disappointed that some RRF grant recipients in our community still had to close their doors, which reflects the lasting damage caused by COVID-19. I am even more disappointed that there are many others that did not receive grants in the first place. The economic impact of this pandemic is far from over and the unwillingness of some of my Senate colleagues to act has prevented thousands of struggling restaurants from getting relief.

Since some of my Senate colleagues refuse to act, any additional relief that the SBA can provide using existing funds is even more important. I hope that in the weeks ahead, the SBA will be transparent about how much funding remains in RRF as well as its plans to get those funds to qualified businesses that still desperately need help.

There also is a clear need for additional oversight to detail the efficacy of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. We know that there will be economic downturns in the future and probably even future pandemics. The only way we can improve our response is by learning from COVID-19. For Congress to make the best decisions, we will need the SBA to give us a clear understanding of what aspects of RRF worked, and what aspects did not, including which grant recipients were required to return their grants and why.

— Ben Cardin, Pikesville

The writer, a Democrat, represents Maryland in the U.S. Senate.

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