A bipartisan group of lawmakers has started exploring another round of coronavirus relief funding for small businesses as a surge of the highly contagious omicron variant threatens to unleash more economic havoc.
Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., have spearheaded an effort to provide small businesses with additional federal aid, a person familiar with the matter told FOX Business. The news was first reported by The Washington Post.
The source said the duo is crafting a package based on a bill the pair introduced in August that would replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a program created by Democrats in March 2021 that gave food and beverage providers grants equal to their pandemic-related revenue loss, with a maximum of $10 million per business and $5 million per location.
The proposed legislation, which failed to pass, would have allocated an additional $48 billion to the fund. The Post reported that Wicker and Cardin put together a $68 billion proposal in mid-December that includes a mix of new spending and reallocation of unused cash authorized under previous packages.
The Restaurant Revitalization Fund launched May 3 and paid out approximately $29 billion to eligible applicants, which included restaurants, bars, food trucks and carts, brewpubs, tasting rooms and other food service establishments. Businesses could use the grants to cover expenses, rent and supply costs. The fund ran out of money in less than two months after providing grants to more than 100,000 businesses.
Any spending plan faces an uphill battle in the narrowly divided Senate, where Republicans previously sank efforts to provide small businesses with additional aid over concerns about the nation's deficit. But the talks underscore growing unease on Capitol Hill over a stunning rise in cases driven by the highly transmissible omicron variant. The U.S. is now reporting a seven-day moving average of more than 122,000 cases.
While it's still unclear what the fast-spreading variant will ultimately mean for the health of the economy, its effects on daily life have already been felt. Thousands of flights have been canceled, Broadway shows are shuttering their doors and a growing number of schools have postponed reopenings.
The White House has maintained that it has the resources needed to respond to any disruptions caused by the omicron spread. Asked Wednesday about the possibility of a relief package that targets restaurants and other small businesses, White House press secretary Jen Psaki pointed to the $1.9 trillion package that Democrats passed nearly a year ago.
"We did a major relief package that included helping restaurants just last year," she said. "We are in constant discussions with Congress and leadership about the needs of the American people, whether they are small businesses or restaurants or people sitting in their homes as we continue to fight the pandemic, but don't have any new prediction of new pending requests or specific requests and wouldn't predict that at this moment in time."
Only about one-third of restaurants that applied for relief through the fund received a grant, and the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a trade group formed during the pandemic, estimates that nearly 80% of restaurants could close this winter without additional aid.