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SF Bar and Restaurant Owners Call on the City for Relief: ‘We’re on a Sinking Boat’

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One proposal asks the city to repurpose unused health care funds

Coronavirus Pandemic Causes Climate Of Anxiety And Changing Routines In America
A pedestrian walks by a closed sign on the door of a restaurant in San Francisco
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For many Bay Area restaurants and bars, the new realities of life under a shelter-in-place order — intended to limit the spread of coronavirus — have meant a fundamental change in the way they do business: a pivot to takeout and delivery even for restaurants that never meant to provide those services, and, in many cases, the tough decision to shut things down.

What’s clear is that the lockdown will have a huge long-term impact on local restaurants, many of which have had to make massive layoffs this week or have closed altogether, with no clear sense of when it might be possible to reopen. Bars, on the other hand, are all closed for the time being. And so, as Eater’s Hillary Dixler Canavan argues, it is almost impossible to conceive of how the majority of bars and restaurants will make it to the other side of this pandemic without a major infusion of cash from the government.

In San Francisco, the mayor’s office has introduced a handful of initiatives meant to help ease the pressure on small businesses such as restaurants, including a deferral on taxes and licensing fees, the creation of a $1 million “resiliency fund” that will give out up to a hundred $10,000 emergency grants to small companies showing economic losses, and a moratorium on commercial evictions for small businesses. Additionally, Supervisor Hillary Ronen is working on another piece of legislation that would create a $20 million fund that would be used to give small businesses zero-interest loans of up $15,000.

But the consensus in San Francisco’s restaurant community is that these measures won’t be nearly enough to save a large number of the city’s bars and restaurants. So industry leaders have started to mobilize, sending letters and petitions asking city officials for additional help.

Bar owner Ben Bleiman, whose Tonic Nightlife Group includes SF watering holes Tonic, Soda Popinski’s, and Teeth, calls the current shutdown “the greatest crisis that restaurants and bars have ever faced in the history of the nation.” “I would say about 50 percent of bars and restaurants are facing existential destruction,” he says.

Bleiman is one of several bar and restaurant leaders who are backing one of the more creative proposals: Yesterday, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to the mayor’s office and the SF Board of Supervisors asking the city to release unused Healthy San Francisco funds — money that was collected by businesses to pay for uninsured employees’ health care expenses, the surplus of which is held by the city. In the letter (which you can read in full below), the Chamber asks the city to now use that money to pay restaurant, bar, and retail workers for at least a chunk of the wages they’ve lost due to layoffs or shift reductions caused by the shelter-in-place order.

Jay Cheng, a spokesperson for the Chamber, believes the city is holding onto tens of millions of dollars in unused Healthy SF funds, as he says that most bar and restaurant workers now get health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, and needn’t use Healthy SF (a health care access program that, under the ACA, isn’t officially counted as health insurance). “The Healthy SF dollars that are still being collected and remain unused should help provide employees some economic security during this public health crisis,” the Chamber’s letter argues.

It’s worth noting here that Healthy SF has long been a point of controversy in the SF restaurant community. The Golden Gate Restaurant Association, the local restaurant lobbying group, spent four years fighting the health care initiative in the courts — and is now one of this proposal’s major backers, along with prominent restaurateurs like Anna Weinberg (Marlowe, Leo’s Oyster Bar, etc.) and George Chen (China Live).

Cheng acknowledges that there may be an optics problem — or “a political challenge,” as he puts it — with the idea of emptying a fund meant to provide healthcare to the uninsured. He says that’s why the Chamber isn’t asking for the money to be returned to the businesses themselves, but to instead put it in the hands of their laid-off workers. “Employees are facing so many different stressors at this point — it’s like rent, it’s health, it’s your gas, all that stuff,” Cheng says. “I feel like it’s really incumbent on us to try and relieve that pressure as much as possible.”

In response to Eater’s request for comment on the proposal, the mayor’s office sent a statement that outlined the city’s existing initiatives to help small businesses, noting, also, that, “All options for supporting businesses and workers are currently under consideration.”

Meanwhile, other groups of restaurateurs and industry leaders are also seeking ways to survive. One petition — backed by nightlife and entertainment groups like Temple Nightclub, Public Works, and Up All Night — is asking for an even larger fund than the one Supervisor Ronen proposes: one that would allow zero interest loans of up to $100,000 to small- and medium-sized businesses in SF.

“Restaurants and bars in SF will have limited or no working capital to reopen their business if the city doesn’t step up to provide drastic financial relief during these difficult times,” August (1) Five owner Hetal Shah said in a press release sent out by the backers of that petition.

Ultimately, the Tonic Nightlife Group’s Bleiman says he doesn’t care where the money comes from. “Just tell us how you’re going to help us because we need help right now, we have absolutely nowhere else to go. We’re on a sinking boat.”

Update: March 18, 5:55 p.m.: This article has been updated to include a statement from the SF mayor’s office.

The full text of the Chamber of Commerce letter to city is below: