Businesses struggle as state budget uses up remaining CARES Act funds
After more than 10 years in business, Owners Ray and Terry Hanis of Green Tree closed the Village Tavern and Trattoria in West End on Nov. 28. Continued revenue losses tied to COVID-19 restrictions and winter capacity went into the decision.
By Jamie Wiggan
Several months after Congress approved a $2 trillion stimulus bill to prop up the national economy, Pennsylvania lawmakers voted Nov. 20 to use the remaining share of the state’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act allocation to cover funding shortages in its existing programming.
Meanwhile, local businesses are struggling to stay afloat as Coronavirus cases surge and officials warn of more restrictions possibly to come.
Facing this uncertainty, Village Tavern and Trattoria owner Ray Hanis decided after more than 10 years in business to close the doors of his neighborhood restaurant after a final night of celebration and commiseration Nov. 28.
“There were a lot of things that went into that decision,” he said. “But Covid definitely hit us hard there.”
While weather remained mild, Hanis said the business was able to stay afloat by seating customers outdoors. Without that additional capacity throughout the winter months, though, he’d be unable to keep up with rent and utility payments.
“We were fortunate because we had the patio and the sidewalk — we were doing great,” he said. “Then as soon as the weather changed, we were like ‘Oh my God, we’re back on 50% revenue.’”
Before the state budget passed in November, legislators from all camps spoke of the remaining $1.3 billion in the state’s portion of the relief money as an outstanding lifeline for struggling businesses.
In a previous story about local impacts of the pandemic, State Reps Dan Deasy (D-27) and Anita Kulik (D-45) told Gazette 2.0 they hoped some of the money could be allocated to restaurant owners. Both representatives stuck to that line by voting against the budget, which passed the Republican-leaning House along close party lines but picked up some bipartisan support in the senate.
State Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-42) approved the Senate bill authorizing the budget. State Sen. Pam Iovino (D-37) approved an earlier version of the spending plan, but rejected the final package that included amendments put forward by House legislators.
Deasy — whose office in Pittsburgh’s West End Village sits just a few doors up from the now-shuttered Village Tavern on South Main Street — called the bill “irresponsible” for not allocating at least some of the money to business owners.
Those funds were “earmarked to the state for those who needed a lifeline,” he said. “…We did not extend that lifeline.”
With tax revenue well down since the pandemic took off, Deasy acknowledged the Commonwealth’s precarious finances but said the state could have borrowed funds to get through the pandemic.
“There’s no reason why at least a third could not have gone to businesses,” he said.
With live entertainment on hold since late march, music venues were another casualty of the new budget. A relief bill introduced into Pennsylvania’s legislature in October dubbed “Save Our Stages” called for $200 million from those CARES Act monies now claimed elsewhere in the state budget.
For the owners of the newly-renovated Roxian Theatre in McKees Rocks, the outlook is bleak but not hopeless.
“We remain hopeful, but the situation is still highly uncertain and we are facing strong headwinds towards reopening,” said Roxian Live partner and spokesperson John Sieminski.
Sieminski said reports of progress in the search for a COVID-19 vaccine represent a “really positive development” for live music. Consequently, he said industry experts now anticipate stages to reopen in June and national acts to resume touring in September of 2021.
Until then, the partners and a group of stakeholders who helped propel the venue’s $10 million makeover continue to strategize options for staying afloat.
Moving forward, Deasy said hopes for state-led relief measures now rely on Congress passing another federal stimulus bill. Should anything materialize, he said allocating money to distressed businesses would be a priority when the state legislature convenes again in January.
“It’s gonna be a tough job, but I’m looking forward to the challenge,” he said.