News10NBC Investigates: Why is relief money for restaurants still $0?

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VICTOR, N.Y. (WHEC) — "I mean, what about the small people?" Lorraine Serpe asked as we sat at a table at her restaurant in Victor.

Federal COVID money was specifically designated for restaurant owners like her. And last Spring she got approved, but the fund account remains empty.

This is a problem we started investigating five months ago.

It’s about relief money that was supposed to go first to women and minority-owned restaurant owners. But because of two discrimination lawsuits, many owners got leap-frogged by other restaurant owners and all the money got spent.

In May, the fund topped out at $28.6 billion and the Small Business Administration received more than $75 billion in requests.

And News10NBC found out the promise to open up more money has not been fulfilled.

Brean: "You applied for Restaurant Revitalization money?"

Lorraine Serpe, Lorraine’s Food Factory: "Correct."

Brean: "And you got approved for money?"

Serpe: "Yes."

Brean: "Did you ever see any of that money?"

Serpe: "Never."

Lorraine Serpe has one of the most famous first names in the food business in Rochester. She’s been at it for 40 years.

In May, she was approved for money to help recover her restaurant from COVID, but after lawsuits in Texas and Tennessee by male restaurant owners, the applications of Serpe and thousands of other women and minority owners lost priority status and male owners who applied before them got money.

My first story on this was with Michele Yancy, owner of Antonetta’s on Lyell Avenue and the Meatball Truck.

When the money dried up in June, the Small Business Administration notified her, her application was "fully canceled."

"And all of a sudden it is just yanked out from under you," Yancy said in June.

"Hopefully someone can get to the bottom of this and are they going to refund it?" Serpe said Tuesday.

Congressman Joe Morelle was one of more than 200 co-sponsors of a bill in June to replenish the fund.

Brean: "The bill to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund is still sitting in committee, as far as I can tell. How come that hasn’t moved?"

Rep. Joe Morelle, (D) 25th District: "Well because there are a lot of competing interests. But it’s a bill I co-sponsor… You know there’s not enough money that’s available yet."

Brean: "Congress just passed a bill to spend billions on infrastructure."

Rep. Morelle: "A trillion."

Brean: "Trillion. Excuse me, trillion."

Morelle: "1.2 trillion."

Brean: "So the money is there but not in that fund."

Morelle: "Well because that’s not an infrastructure thing."

The bill Morelle co-sponsors never got a vote. Neither did a July bid by a republican congressman. A bill in the U.S. Senate got shot down in August.

In September, Morelle signed this letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi asking her to re-fill the fund.

"This is critical to both the restaurant industry itself and our overall economic recovery," the letter states. "And we, therefore, urge you to include a substantial replenishment of the RRF in any forthcoming reconciliation package."

Friday, Morelle is signing a similar letter addressed to President Joe Biden.

Morelle says more money might get into the president’s next major relief package dubbed "Build Back Better."

"We’re going to continue to work to make sure that we take care of the needs who really struggled in this process," Morelle said.

The restaurant industry says almost 90,000 restaurants have permanently closed since COVID hit.

To make matters worse, the accounts of owners like Lorraine Serpe are now inactive.

And when her staff calls the Small Business Administration for help, they’re told they only talk to people who got the money.

Brean: "This money is a difference-maker to you?"

Serpe: "This money, yes, would be a difference-maker to me. It would keep me from not sleeping at night."

Morelle believes the "inactive" accounts are still in the cue with the SBA and will be re-activated if the fund gets more money.