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Small rural restaurants in WA left behind by SBA relief program


The funds were intended to cover expenses incurred during the pandemic, but thousands of businesses are still awash in debt.

Nationally, only about a third of qualified applicants have received a portion of the $28.6 billion in federal relief grants. Almost 40% of that went to only 5% of applicants. Days after the app opened last summer, business owners asked over $72 billion — approximately 2½ times the amount of funds available.

The Washington Hospitality Association estimates that at least 3,335 restaurants across the state have closed between January 2020 and May 2021. The association’s president and CEO, Anthony Anton, said he expects another wave of closures if these restaurants do not receive financial support. Statewide, he said, nearly 4,000 businesses applied and qualified for the grant but received nothing. Many could be forced to close.

“They submitted, they went through the process, we know how well they qualified,” Anton said. “Let’s fund those. That’s what I hope will happen.

This story is part of Crosscut’s WA Recovery Watch, an investigative project tracking federal dollars in Washington State.

The SBA initially priority grants to self-identified restaurant owners of color, as well as majority women- and veteran-owned businesses, giving those candidates a 21-day head start. Despite these efforts, the six largest grants in Washington have gone to business owners from non-priority groups. Millions more went to chains and franchises.

White male business owners in Texas and Tennessee also suedalleging priority timelines were discriminatory, later causing the SBA to revoke thousands of grants previously given to priority restaurants.

“Those [priority applicants] was put back in the pile and did not proportionally get the same amount of money back. It is heartbreaking to hear these stories,” Anton said. “I spoke to several of these people who thought they were going to make it and then had their hearts broken a second time.”

There’s a silver lining for the future of restaurants: The Restaurant Revitalization Fund grant program could get a new influx of money.

On April 7, the US House of Representatives voted to allocate $42 billion to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, and it is now awaiting a Senate vote. If passed, it would provide funding to all initial applicants in the first round, plus an additional $13 billion for struggling businesses. At least 90,000 restaurants and bars across the country have closed since the pandemic hit two years ago, said the bill’s main sponsor, U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, and U.S. Representative Dean Phillips, D-Minnesota.

“It would mean the world to them,” Anton said, “to see Congress step in, do the right thing, and help them.”