Restaurants deserve break from fees during COVID-19 crisis

t shouldn’t take a lawsuit for Bay Area restaurants to receive a break from liquor license and health permit fees assessed by the state and counties during COVID-19 health orders.

Eatery owners across the state, including those in Contra Costa, Santa Clara, Monterey and Sonoma counties, have filed lawsuits against the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and the businesses’ respective counties seeking to get their money back.

They deserve it.

The state and counties should waive fees for restaurants for the time they were forced to shutter their doors and at least proportionately reduce the fees for the periods the businesses were required to operate at reduced capacity.

Restauranteurs had enough challenges even before the onset of the pandemic. The median lifespan for a restaurant  is 4.5 years, and the failure rate is especially high for first-year eateries.

The effect on the businesses of necessary health shutdown orders was devastating for many. There were an estimated 18,000 restaurants operating in the Bay Area prior to the pandemic. No solid figures are available on how many have closed for good, but some estimates are as high as 40%.

The food establishments are major job providers in the state, employing an estimated 1.5 million people before the pandemic, according to the California Restaurant Association. One-third of those workers are thought to still be out of work.

These are primarily low-income workers who were some of the hardest-hit during the pandemic. Keeping them working, and the businesses that employ them operating, is critical for recovery of the state and local economies.

Santa Clara County took a step in that direction. The Board of Supervisors on March 9 approved a small business permit fee relief program that allows restaurants up to 25 employees a one-time credit equivalent to the annual cost of a business’ existing permit fees. San Francisco has similarly waived fees for restaurants with under $750,000 in gross receipts.

Brian Kabateck, a Los Angeles-based attorney representing the restaurant group, estimates that just the local fees can total between $3,000 and $10,000 annually. “These fees can make the difference between rehiring a furloughed employee or not,” said Dean Griffith, of The Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant in Contra Costa County.

During the first year of COVID restrictions, state and county health orders closed Contra Costa County restaurants for 313 days for indoor dining and 130 days for outdoor dining, according to a Bay Area News Group analysis.  Santa Clara County restaurants were closed for 316 days for indoor dining and 129 days for outdoor dining during the same time.

At great financial sacrifice, restaurants did their part to help slow the spread of the virus. Our government agencies should now do theirs by giving restaurants a break to help them recover.

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