The White House is keeping a “close watch” on whether there may be a need for more targeted relief to aid restaurants and other small businesses still struggling through the pandemic, coordinator for the COVID-19 relief package Gene Sperling told Spectrum News on Thursday.
Since last March, Sperling has overseen the rollout of the American Rescue Plan, which included a Restaurant Revitalization Fund with $28.6 billion in direct grants for establishments. But the money was met with overwhelming demand and ran out by early July.
Asked Thursday whether he sees the need for more restaurant aid, Sperling said it’s an area where the White House is “keeping a close watch.”
“Whether or not this persists in a way where you're going to need to give some very targeted relief to small businesses or a particular industry? I think we're tracking that literally every day, very closely,” he said.
Sperling, who directed the National Economic Council under former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, said he and other top aides were “in conversations” with members of Congress about the potential need for more relief.
“It’s not determined yet but something we're watching very closely and considering,” he added.
The restaurant funds ultimately helped more than 100,000 businesses, though many owners say they missed out.
Sperling pointed out that the country was in a different economic position than a year ago, with unemployment down to 3.9% and more than six million jobs added since the American Rescue Plan passed.
But a bipartisan group of senators are negotiating a bill that could add another $40 billion to the restaurant fund, Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin said last week, though it’s unclear when it would get attention amid a busy Congressional agenda.
Coordinator Sperling on Thursday also made the point that he wants mayors and local officials to prioritize keeping essential staff on board throughout the pandemic, which he told them during the U.S. Conference of Mayors this week.
“We understand most of you are using your money very wisely. But ask yourself what you could do to make sure you're retaining your workers who might want to keep working, but they have extra childcare needs, they need a little help, or they'll have several days off, and they need some paid leave to get through?” he said.
And he said that while local officials have flexibility, their ultimate goal is to use the money to get through the COVID emergency while also planning for longer term improvements.
“My Spider-Man reference is: With that great flexibility does come great responsibility to ensure that you are spending your resources as wisely as possible,” Sperling said.
“The fact that they haven't spent everything out does not necessarily reflect that they're doing something wrong,” he added of longer-term programs.