Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Save America’s Restaurants

American cities have sought to keep restaurants in business during the coronavirus pandemic by allowing indoor dining. With the virus spreading out of control across large swaths of the country, continuing to allow it risks an even greater public health disaster. There is ample evidence that the coronavirus spreads with ease among people eating in enclosed spaces.

Yet, even as case counts climb, politicians have remained reluctant to protect public health by imposing painful restrictions, instead relying on cosmetic measures — hoping that they will appear to be doing something even as they are effectively doing nothing.

A growing number of municipalities and states have imposed curfews on restaurants and bars, as if the virus were a vampire. Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California advised diners in his state to “keep your mask on in between bites.” That is absurd.

The promising news about coronavirus vaccine trials offers growing reason for optimism that sometime next year, Americans again will be able to eat safely inside their favorite restaurants.

What the public interest requires for now is a suspension of indoor dining in areas where the virus is spreading, combined with federal aid to keep restaurants in business.

The House already has passed a bill that serves the purpose. The RESTAURANTS Act — it is an acronym, but we won’t bore you with the full name — would provide up to $120 billion in grants to independent restaurants, small restaurant chains (with fewer than 20 locations) and catering firms. The aid would cover the difference between last year’s revenues and this year’s revenues, and could be used to cover most expenses, including payroll.

A pending Senate version, which has bipartisan backing, would provide aid to big chains, too. McDonald’s and its ilk don’t need the money, but it’s easy to imagine a deal.

Representative Earl Blumenauer, the Oregon Democrat who sponsored the House bill, said he’s been heartbroken by the growing roll call of restaurant failures in his Portland district, punching holes in the fabric of his community. The money is intended to get restaurants through winter, when outdoor dining is less tenable in many parts of the country. “It’s a bridge to better weather,” he said.

Providing aid to restaurants also could make it easier for cities to suspend indoor dining.

It is one of the defining perversities of the country’s response to the pandemic that many cities have kept indoor dining open while schools are closed — prioritizing economic activity over the welfare of children. New York City, which for much of the fall stood out as the rare big city where children still could learn in classrooms, announced Wednesday that it would close its schools for in-person learning, even as the city allows people to eat inside restaurants, drink in bars and exercise in gyms.

Again: Children are allowed to eat in restaurants but not learn in classrooms.

The public interest urgently requires an inversion of that pattern. The United States should emulate European countries, where schools have closed last, or not at all. Federal aid for restaurateurs would make it easier for local leaders to justify prohibitions on indoor dining. While that alone wouldn’t totally control the virus or reopen schools, it would help.

Public health officials have warned for months that there is a clear link between indoor dining and the spread of the virus. Analysts at JPMorgan Chase have shown that in-person spending at restaurants predicts coronavirus case counts: more money, more problems. A new study due out in the journal Nature used cellphone data to reach similar conclusions.

Many other kinds of businesses also need aid, of course. Workers also need aid. State and local governments also need aid. We have repeatedly urged Senate Republicans to pass a version of the broad economic aid plan that House Democrats first passed in May. But it’s clear that that’s not going to happen. Democrats can still win control of the Senate next year by prevailing in a pair of Georgia runoff elections, but that’s not soon enough.

The resurgence of the virus is again disrupting economic activity, and in the absence of federal aid, the harsh reality is that many restaurants are not going to survive.

There is nothing to be gained by waiting until January, or by refusing to reach agreement where agreement appears possible. Congress may not be able to do the big things, but this is a clear chance to do something. Save the nation’s restaurants — and save lives.

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