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Cardella: Save our Small Businesses

As the pandemic surges, the rules of behavior have necessarily gotten stricter. We are faced with a choice that Hobson could relate to. As the story goes, Thomas Hobson owned a livery stable during the late 1600s and early 1700s. He rented horses to students. Since students kept choosing their favorite horses, those horses soon became overworked. Hobson’s solution was to rotate the horses he rented. Students were forced to choose the horse nearest the stable door or come away without a horse. Over time, the situation became known as “Hobson’s Choice,” which meant being forced to choose between two equally objectionable alternatives. It’s a problem that has become all too real here in this city and across the nation. Close your business and face the economic consequences or further spread the deadly virus.

Without adequate financial help from the government, small businesses such as restaurants, gyms, hair styling and nail salons are faced with the increasingly real prospect of being forced out of business. In our area, many of the owners and employees of these businesses have turned their anger on the mayor and his health officials. They’re convinced that Jim Kenney doesn’t care. But no matter what you think of Kenney, consider that no mayor of a big city in America willingly commits economic suicide. Small business owners are left insisting against all health indicators that their businesses are not guilty of spreading the virus. The plight of these business owners is real, but they’ve chosen the wrong enemy to fight.

According to the mayor, Philadelphia has received only about 6% of the funding provided by the CARES Act. Neither the city nor the state has enough money to provide the financial assistance sufficient to keep these local businesses afloat. Only the federal government is equipped to do so. Thus far, the patchwork of funding programs at the state and local levels have failed to provide the money needed. At a minimum, Congress has to pass legislation such as the Restaurant Act of 2020 to help save our local businesses. And that’s where the focus has to be centered, not on the usual scapegoats.

The Restaurant Act was introduced with bipartisan support on June 15, 2020. The act would temporarily establish and provide funding for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund from which the Department of Treasury would make grants totaling $120 billion to some 500,000 eligible businesses in the food and beverage industry across America. This federal money would cover specified costs incurred resulting from the impact of COVID-19. The eligible businesses would be limited to those with fewer than 20 locations. This restriction would prevent the recurrence of what happened the last time, when most assistance was gobbled up by large chains such as RUTH’S CHRIS and POTBELLY. With the new restrictions in place, about 70% of American restaurant businesses would be covered.

No vote in Congress has yet been taken. Help is desperately needed to keep, for example, an estimated 85% of restaurants in Philadelphia from closing permanently. And yet, Congress is in a lame duck session. Even if the bill is passed by the current Congress, would President Trump sign it? If not, the bill would carry over into 2021 when a new Congress would have to consider it all over again. And though the restaurant industry is an important part of the economic backbone of this city and others, it is not the only industry in trouble because of COVID-19.

Our small businesses are facing the bleakest of winters. The economic challenge our nation faces is akin to the Great Depression. And only a bold and imaginative president with a bold and imaginative program AND the support of Congress will be able to get us through these times. The incoming president — Joe Biden — will be faced with an enormous task. Unless the Democrats can win the two Senate seats in Georgia in the Jan. 5 runoff election, Biden will face a Republican Senate unlikely to support any massive aid program. The outgoing president seems willing to dedicate himself to fomenting hostility toward Biden, supported by 74 million whom he’s convinced had the election stolen from him. These are the kinds of obstacles that President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not face when he replaced Herbert Hoover and was able to save American capitalism.

Instead of fighting the mayor and CDC guidelines, the small business community in this city must take their fight to the federal level, where the real battle must be won. These folks have fought the tough fight. Complied with strict health guidelines. In some cases, invested a good deal of money in trying to extend their season for outdoor dining. Adjusted their business practices. Been incredibly innovative in order to maintain their workforce. Many of their employees have taken health risks to keep their jobs. Showed amazing loyalty and made tough sacrifices to keep themselves afloat. It is difficult to tell these business owners and their employees that tougher battles lay ahead. But the answer is not to relax health restrictions at a time when the promise of relief from new vaccines may only be months away. The answer is for the feds to come to the rescue.

Some may argue that with the current budget deficit we can’t afford it. The reality is that we can’t afford not to. Money spent now to save our small businesses is an investment in our future. 

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