As Congress talks, businesses try GoFundMe to survive COVID-19

Patrons’ contributions filling in for federal aid

Bars and restaurants have been especially hard hit by the pandemic, with many forced to keep limited hours for takeout orders only. Above, Kelly's Irish Times bar sits closed to indoor dining on Capitol Hill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Bars and restaurants have been especially hard hit by the pandemic, with many forced to keep limited hours for takeout orders only. Above, Kelly's Irish Times bar sits closed to indoor dining on Capitol Hill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 8, 2020 at 5:30am

After selling just three drinks on a Sunday in October, Patti Brett worried they might be her last.

For more than 40 years, Doobies Bar has been a communal living room for Philadelphia’s Grad Hospital neighborhood, a place to chat with friends and play board games over beers. Brett started working there before her mother bought it in 1978. Doobies’ meaning to the community is evident on its walls, lined with David Bowie memorabilia given to Brett, arguably the city’s biggest fan of the Thin White Duke.

But after outlasting the hospital that gave the neighborhood its name, Brett’s bar may now succumb to the coronavirus pandemic. With bills piling up, she turned to the crowdfunding site GoFundMe to solicit donations. “I’m asking for your help because I don’t know what else to do,” she wrote.

Within 12 hours, she hit her initial goal of $10,000, and the GoFundMe campaign has now raised more than $36,700, “which is absolutely going to get me through the winter,” Brett says.

Facing an avalanche of new coronavirus cases and renewed restrictions on indoor dining, desperate bar and restaurant owners like Brett are relying on the charity of patrons to survive.

Congress hasn’t offered struggling businesses new support since April, when it topped up funds for the Paycheck Protection Program established by a $2 trillion package in March.

FiscalNote, parent company of CQ Roll Call, has received a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program.

Legislative relief effort

Lawmakers are working on another COVID-19 relief bill that would be the first since the spring. Among the ideas under discussion are a $908 billion bipartisan proposal and one from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that includes $332.7 billion for another round of PPP aid. That PPP money would be limited to small businesses that have seen revenue drop 25 percent this year. It would have more flexibility than the first round but would still largely go toward covering payroll.

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But small-bar owners say the initial program didn’t do enough for them while letting big chains and businesses that were barely hurt take most of the funds. “Small-business owners really need some relief,” said Brett. “I hate seeing these big chains getting money, because they’re the ones that still make money.”

More than half of the $522 billion distributed by the first PPP round went to 5 percent of recipients, including businesses that haven’t been as hard-hit as the hospitality sector, like law firms, construction companies and temp agencies, according to the Small Business Administration.

Philadelphia shuttered its bars and restaurants on March 16 (aside from takeout) and allowed them to reopen only in May. Since then, Oscar’s Tavern, a dimly lit bar in Center City Philadelphia, has struggled to get by. Philadelphia shut down indoor dining again in November amid the surge of COVID-19 cases.

Oscar’s is another famed Philly institution that turned to GoFundMe to stay afloat. The bar has been in Richard Chodak’s family for 48 years. He’s hoping to raise $20,000 to help cover Oscar’s mortgage and utilities and to help out his staff.

“The way I’m looking at it is, I have to survive January and February. Those are the months that are really going to hurt the most,” he said.

Others are doing the same. Dirty Frank’s, a windowless dive where Philadelphia’s poet laureate works the door, has raised $28,700; The Bike Stop, the city’s only leather bar, collected $17,700 toward a $40,000 goal; Fergie’s, one of the first bars to get serious about craft beers, got $67,400. They all are places that define and give character to their neighborhoods.

At $7,700, Oscar’s hasn’t raised as much as the others, leading Chodak to worry about donor fatigue. “The people that go to us go to Doobies, go to Frank’s, go to Fergie’s,” he said. “I don’t know how much people are willing to donate. If you donated to one bar, will you donate to another?”

GoFundMe reported more than $625 million raised between March and September related to COVID-19, with nearly 60 percent going toward fundraisers for small businesses and unemployed workers. 

Oscar’s and Doobies sponsored GoFundMe efforts in the spring for laid-off staff, but neither raised much. The response has been stronger with the bars facing existential threats.

City, state and federal disconnect

For Brett and Chodak, the disconnect between local, state and federal responses to the pandemic has been jarring. Pennsylvania imposed stricter controls than many states, and Philadelphia was stricter still, shutting down indoor dining faster and longer than neighboring counties.  

When the city imposed an 11 p.m. curfew on bars and restaurants, those lost hours hurt bars the most.

“We don’t really get busy until 10 o’clock,” Chodak said. “We’re not a 7 o’clock kind of place.”

Doobies is too small for safe indoor dining, so Brett switched to selling drinks to go, essentially turning her bar into a bottle shop. But going from selling beers at $5 a can to $17.50 a six-pack cut revenue nearly in half.

Chodak and Brett want to stay open over the winter, if they can do so safely. But January and February temperatures in the 30s are too cold for outdoor dining, even under tents and next to space heaters. The fall’s cooler temperatures are already taking a toll on restaurant workers: Food and beverage establishments cut more than 17,000 jobs in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ jobs report Friday.

While Philadelphia and Pennsylvania started grant programs to help struggling businesses, the funds quickly ran out. Oscar’s got a PPP loan, but that money is gone, and only a fraction could be used for expenses other than payroll. Brett didn’t think she could qualify for the PPP until it was too late to apply.

Unlike the federal government, most states and municipalities can’t run deficits. So additional help for businesses would need to come from Congress.

While the fiscal response to COVID-19 has to come federally, the public health measures are set locally, leading to widely disparate approaches. Chodak was frustrated to see Texas and Florida getting so much PPP money when those states implemented far less strict social distancing measures.

“The lack of federal leadership on this issue is troubling,” said Chodak.

He would like to see Congress pass  a specific bailout for restaurants and bars. “If you gave every bar in Philadelphia a $50,000 grant, we’d all survive.”

The Independent Restaurant Coalition has been pushing for a $120 billion relief fund that has bipartisan support. But while the $908 billion proposal now under discussion in Congress would include funds for concert venues, eateries would be left out.

Even with another round of PPP, Chodak and Brett say bigger companies will vacuum up all of the funds again.

“That’s why I’m relying more on the GoFundMe than I am the federal government. I’m relying on the generosity of our loyal customers more than I am on the state government, local government or federal government,” Chodak said. “The bottom line is, Oscar’s is going to get passed over. I applied for grants. I got turned down on everything.”

Chodak has low expectations that whatever Congress does — if anything — will help bars like his.

“It’s a shame we can’t rely on the government to help us out,” he said.

But Brett is more optimistic, given the outcome of November’s election. “I’m very hopeful with the new administration,” she said. “The old administration, it just seemed like they did everything they could to keep people from surviving.”

“If it weren’t for that GoFundMe, I don't think I would’ve made it through this winter,” she added.