BALTIMORE, Md. — Nearly four months ago, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund abruptly closed, leaving nearly two-thirds of the businesses that applied without any relief. Many say if money isn’t replenished, their chances of survival are slim.
Stepping into Lexington Market in Baltimore is like walking into a history book. It's the oldest continually operated municipal market in the country.
Damye Hahn’s family is certainly a chapter within that book. Her family started their business in 1886 and Hahn is the fourth generation who runs this community staple.
“I feel like I’m a curator like of a museum. I feel like I am meant to just take it and pass it to the next," Hahn said.
While she’s definitely not the first manager, she's the first to have to fight for the life of their business.
“If we want the workforce to get back, if we want the restaurants to get back, if we want business to get back as usual, they need to make it right," Hahn said.
This past spring, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund gave $28.6 billion in grants to eligible food businesses. Then, it stopped.
Thiru Vignarajah, the former deputy attorney general of Maryland, says Congress knew the $28.6 billion would not be enough.
“This was born with good intentions. Congress realized there was a major need for restaurants all across the country in the midst of a once-in-a-century crisis. They saw the need and they answered with $28.6 billion for the country, but it didn’t help everyone," Vignarajah said. “Senator Schumer called it a down payment on what was needed.”
The fund was meant to prioritize businesses owned by women, veterans, and those who are socially and economically disadvantaged. Restaurant owners like Hahn were told to get their applications in as quickly as possible.
“So, I was gathering everything up, gathering everything up from the accountant, had everything ready, preregistered, sat down and day one, minute one, 12 o’clock, I’m on," Hahn said. “I knew I was first day, first hour, I knew that we were a priority group. Three weeks later, I was so excited to see that we had actually been approved. They can’t approve you without having the funds, so knowing that we had been approved meant we were going to get funded. That didn’t happen.”
Three weeks after the fund opened, a panel on the 6th circuit court ruled it was illegal to prioritize businesses on the basis of race or sex. The rules changed. Hahn says the decision felt like a betrayal by the country she loves.
“I’m extremely proud to be an American. I have a son that serves, I have a father that served, I have nephews and nieces that are serving, and I am so proud of everything that they do, but our government has made some serious mistakes, especially with us small businesses," Hahn said.
“What was born with good intentions has turned into a game of restaurant roulette," Vignarajah said. “There was a McDonald's in Bethesda that got $2.7 million and then you’ve got local mom and pop shops that are not going to survive the pandemic that applied, were eligible and didn’t get a dollar.”
Restaurants across the country are pressuring Congress to replenish the fund, but any fix remains months away, if it comes at all.
“I get calls from Kansas. I’m getting calls from Louisiana. I’m getting calls from all over saying, 'What’s happening? What’s happening? We don’t know how much longer we can hold on.'" Hahn said.
“The good news is there is bipartisan support in both houses. There are 200 senators and representatives that have signed on to re-up this fund. We just need to get it done," Vignarajah said.