Mass. Lawmakers & Black Restaurant Owners Call For More Relief Funding

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BOSTON (State House News Service) — Black restaurant owners and legislators called for more relief funding as they kicked off the fifth annual Boston Black Restaurant Challenge Tuesday morning, a month-long campaign intended to boost awareness of Black-owned eateries in the greater Boston area.

The restaurant industry as a whole has suffered throughout the pandemic as COVID forced businesses to implement social distancing measures, reduce capacities, and at some points close entirely. Over the past two years, thousands of restaurants have boarded up as economic pressures forced them out of business.

Black restaurateurs who joined Rep. Chynah Tyler (D-Roxbury) outside the State House said they have had difficulty securing aid dollars and called on the state to dish out more money to help them survive.

"Our businesses, prior to the COVID 19 pandemic, were already challenged by things that affected us almost singularly in terms of funding, in terms of our main streets not having the same attention," said Nia Grace, co-chair of the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition.

Cheryl Straughter, owner of Soleil in Nubian Square, said the state of the Black restaurant industry in Massachusetts is "a little dismal right now."

"We are on any given day losing revenue due to the omicron outbreak -- sometimes our revenue is down 15, 20, 30 [percent] and north of that as well," Straughter said. "The funds will help shore up our business in this intermittent time of challenge. We are looking for a lot of support during Black Restaurant Month."

In an effort to help promote Black-owned restaurants across Boston, the coalition plans to host the Boston Black Restaurant Challenge -- a free promotional tool for restaurant owners -- throughout February in honor of Black History Month.

Black restaurants "have been disproportionately impacted in gaining access to capital and just banking in general, so that's why it's very important to be able to make sure that this particular industry is supported," Tyler said.

"The restaurant industry isn't only something for the foodies to be able to enjoy, but for African-American families, it is a sense of culture," Tyler said. "We want to be able to continue to uplift that culture, particularly now during Black History Month."

The coalition received $350,000 through the Legislature's $4 billion American Rescue Plan Act spending bill to help promote the Black hospitality and restaurant industry, according to the law.

Grace said many Black restaurants did not receive funds through the federal Paycheck Protection Program or the Restaurant Revitalization Fund and more money is needed even with the dollars allocated to the coalition.

"You have to know that $350,000 is not going to go far amongst 50-plus restaurants," Grace said. "So yes, everyone will get a share. But what is that really going to do? And that's why we have that call to action for more. We're asking for more."

House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz pointed to $25 million included in the ARPA spending law for the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation to fund grants for businesses that did not qualify for previous grant rounds due to a lack of revenue loss in 2020.

"COVID has obviously hit Black and brown communities worse than anywhere else in the state and in the country," Michlewitz said. "We know that our small businesses are the lifeblood of our neighborhoods, of our state. And this money is going to be critical towards bringing some of those businesses back to where they were pre-COVID."

Michlewitz said the restaurant industry as a whole will need more attention when lawmakers look to spend the rest of the state's ARPA allocation, adding "there is a desire to do something before the end of the session."

The Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker committed to spend $2.55 billion in state ARPA funds in the bill signed in December, and $2.3 billion remains for future use.

"Technically, we don't have to spend that money until the end of 2023 fully, and then it doesn't have to be allocated until the end of I think 2026," he said. "We do have a little time here, but I do think there is still a need to get more of this money out. I think we want to see where we are after that first round gets allocated."

Written by Chris Van Buskirk, State House News Service.

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