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Downtown Boise restaurants, bars seek aid as they face ‘dire’ situation

Will Hay, co-owner of the Spacebar Arcade in downtown Boise, practices yoga and tries to follow Taoist teachings — accepting the ebbs and flows of life as they come. Lately, that’s been more difficult as there have been a lot more ebbs than flows.

“It’s been a nightmare,” Hay told the Idaho Press.

Hay’s is one of several downtown restaurants and bars struggling to stay afloat during the novel coronavirus pandemic. After scaling back operations and weathering revenue declines for nine months, eateries and pubs face the threat of closure without more government aid, and fast.

“The downtown corridor, all those bars and restaurants are really struggling to stay open,” said Katie Baker, executive director of FARE Idaho, an independent food and beverage trade group. “I think they’re just trying to hold on for any bit of hope that they possibly can at this point.”

Bars and restaurants are in an “economic free fall” across the U.S., according to the National Restaurant Association. More than 110,000 restaurants, or 17%, nationwide have closed, permanently or long term, since March. Eighty-seven percent of full-service restaurants (independent, chain and franchise) reported an average 36% drop in sales revenue, according to a November survey by the National Restaurant Association.

In Idaho, food preparation and serving-related occupations remain among the top sectors for new unemployment claims. Those occupations represented between 8% and 11% of the state’s share of new unemployment claims in a five-week stretch from late October through November.

Chad Johnson, owner of downtown establishments Reef, The Brickyard Steakhouse and The Front Door Taphouse, told the Idaho Press those businesses this year have earned between 30% and 57% of last year’s gross revenue.

“If you travel through downtown, it’s pretty dead,” Baker said.

[State of Downtown: Data shows challenges, but leaders express optimism]

Chilling effect

Local industry representatives point to several reasons for the drop in customers: colder weather, downtown companies vacating offices in favor of remote work and government mandates that restrict the amount of business restaurants and bars can do.

While generally the sentiment among food and beverage proprietors is that government health mandates are necessary to keep customers and staff safe, the fact remains those rules are bad for business. For example, a health order in Ada County requires indoor pubs and eateries to limit capacity to 50%.

“Their bills don’t go down to 50%,” Baker said.

Many downtown Boise restaurant and bar owners suspect they’re losing business to other cities in the Treasure Valley with fewer regulations. In Nampa, bar and restaurant patrons aren’t required to wear face coverings. In Meridian, Central District Health policies apply, but the Meridian Police Department isn’t enforcing them, like the Boise Police Department is. There’s also the issue of positivity rates, and perception of risk from being in public. Ada County leads the state in total COVID-19 cases, and a recent Central District Health advisory warned cases are surging.

“When that health advisory came out, it almost closed us down as a restaurant industry in downtown Boise,” Johnson said. “You have a spike in cases and people are afraid to go out.”

Johnson is not opposed to COVID-19 safety practices — in fact, he’s in favor of a statewide mask mandate and his business signed onto a ”Dine and Drink Safe” pledge — but the lack of continuity among protocols in the Treasure Valley’s two largest counties, Ada and Canyon, is “crazy,” he said.

[New Zealand restaurant to close in downtown Boise]

“We’re doing what we can; it’s the right thing to do, it’s the responsible thing to do, and our peers aren’t doing the same,” Johnson said. “We need to come together and be in alignment because the only way we’re going to get a handle on this is if everybody does their part. That’s easy to say but harder to do.”

Meanwhile, much of the typical downtown lunch crowd — primarily office workers — has evaporated as companies transitioned to full remote work or staggered in-office time. That phenomenon doesn’t only impact restaurants, but places like JD’s Bodega, as well, a popular spot for snacks and sandwiches at lunch time.

The cold weather hasn’t helped either. Sitting outdoors, where people are safer from the virus, is not much of an option anymore.

“Every week since the cold weather hit it’s getting more and more dire,” Baker said.

‘The final push’

On Nov. 30, the Funky Taco, a locally owned restaurant,posted on Facebookthat “due to the recent virus surge and the dramatic decline in business downtown” the restaurant would be closing its dine-in service and instead offering only take-out orders.

“The next three to six months are going to be very difficult for small businesses in and around Downtown Boise, we’re not alone unfortunately,” the post said.

Nicholas Jones, owner of Good Burger, a locally owned restaurant chain, last month chose to close his downtown location, opting instead to operate a drive-thru location elsewhere,BoiseDevand theIdaho Statesmanreported. Jones told the Statesman, “I’m unsure if downtown will pick up soon.”

According to Baker, many downtown businesses could follow suit — ceasing to provide some or all services — if action isn’t taken to provide government aid before the end of this year.

“I’m pretty concerned, I would say everybody should be, that we’re going to lose a lot of businesses in downtown if there’s no help for small businesses,” Baker said.

Restaurants are particularly vulnerable to the economic impacts of COVID-19. Because they are typically saddled with high food and labor costs as well as high rent in many cases, the average restaurant owner only has 16 days of cash on hand,according to the National Restaurant Association, and that’s in a normal year.

One slice of hope is the federal RESTAURANTS Act. The legislation would create a $120 billion grant fund for independent restaurants and bars nationwide to cover payroll, rent and personal protective equipment, among other things.

The program differs from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) in that grants would be provided as opposed to loans, and the money would come directly from the U.S. Treasury, Baker said. PPP loans are facilitated by banks and guaranteed by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

“The RESTAURANTS Act would be extremely beneficial to preserving and/or saving many, many small, independent restaurants, bars and nightclubs,” Johnson said.

The Idaho Press requested comment from Idaho’s Congressional delegation and received responses from spokespeople for Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Russ Fulcher. Crapo’s spokesman, Lindsay Nothern, on Tuesday said it was unclear whether the RESTAURANTS Act would get a vote, but parts of it could be included in a larger bipartisan stimulus bill currently being debated, which Crapo would support.

Fulcher said the following in an emailed statement: “I deeply empathize for these industries being impacted during the pandemic and believe the best way to support the restaurant and hospitality industries is to open up the $137.5 Billion in unused PPP funds that is being held hostage by Nancy Pelosi to use as a bargaining chip in COVID relief negotiations for the past 4 months.”

Johnson said PPP offers a temporary solution to restaurants’ problems, and it only applies to specific expenditures — not including personal protective equipment — but “yes, it would be welcome.”

Congress is expected to act on a stimulus bill by the end of the week.

If Congress doesn’t come to a resolution before they adjourn for the holiday, restaurants may not see aid until next year, which may be too late for many small businesses, Baker said.

“This feels like the final push,” she said.

Ebbs and flows

In the meantime, Hay said he is concerned for his eight-person staff at Spacebar Arcade, who are being put “in harms way, just so we can try and make things financially work.”

“We’ve gone through the PPP funds, and we are limping along trying to survive until we’re supposed to get a little more help from the government,” Hay said.

Hay and his business partner, Zack Rowland, are considering another business opportunity — a screen-printing business — if the bar has to close. Hay may also get a certification to teach yoga classes. But he tries to stay positive.

“I try not to dwell there,” he said. “Of course, I think about it. There’s been a ton of sleepless nights through these last months, but the only thing that you can do is get up every day, and take those steps forward and try and make it through.”

Hay fears downtown may lose its vibrancy if it doesn’t soon get support from the government as well as local diners and shoppers.

“It’s going be a lot of time rebuilding, and I don’t know if a lot of small business, mom-and-pop shops just like we have, are going to be back in the downtown area anytime soon,” he said. “A lot of downtown is made up of these local people that have tried to make Boise a vibrant community, and we want to continue to do that for them. We could really use their support right now.”

Ryan Suppe - Idaho Press reporterhttps://www.idahopress.com/users/profile/ryansuppe/
Ryan Suppe is a reporter for Meridian Press, Kuna-Melba News and The Idaho Press. Follow him on twitter, @salsuppe.

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