Gyms, hotels, bus companies make last-ditch plea for aid
Industries that were battered by the pandemic but missed out on federal relief are now mounting a last-minute push for government funding as lawmakers prepare two massive spending packages.
Congress has appropriated trillions of dollars in COVID-19 relief since the pandemic began, but only airlines, hospitals and a few other industries promptly received aid. And it wasn’t until just recently that restaurants, bars, movie theaters and live music venues began receiving billions in federal funding after an extended delay.
That leaves gym owners, hoteliers and bus companies among those still seeking an injection of government cash. Industry groups see President Biden’s infrastructure spending proposals as some of the few remaining avenues to win over Congress.
“In March 2020, the government shut down restaurants, live venues and gyms. That’s the trifecta that’s always come up, and it seems like we’ve come up with a solution for the first two, but we always skip over the last one,” said Brett Ewer, head of government relations at CrossFit.
One in 5 fitness facilities have closed permanently during the pandemic, according to the Community Gyms Coalition, a group of 15,000 gyms launched during the pandemic. The group says 44 percent of the industry’s workers lost their jobs and 64 percent of gym owners have gone into additional debt that they may struggle to pay off.
Industry groups are rounding up support for the Gym Mitigation and Survival Act, a bipartisan bill that would give $30 billion in aid to gyms and health clubs. Their lobbying campaign has attracted a steady influx of House co-sponsors, which numbered 147 as of this week.
Reps. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), the bill’s House sponsors, have asked Biden to prioritize aid for gyms in the next spending package.
The Global Health & Fitness Association, an industry trade group, and the Community Gyms Coalition are currently urging lawmakers to include the measure in Democrats’ budget reconciliation bill.
“We’re looking at any and every option to help small gyms, frankly. It’s too important for it to not be considered for any legislative vehicle,” said Ewer, a member of the coalition.
Gym owners are stressing the importance of fitness facilities to support healthy lifestyles, particularly as data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that obese patients are significantly more likely to be hospitalized by COVID-19.
With COVID-19 variants spreading across the U.S., industry groups are fretting about how another surge in cases could impact their member businesses that are barely hanging on.
The pandemic devastated the hospitality industry, which cut more than 500,000 hotel jobs that won’t return this year, according to a study from the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA).
AHLA President Chip Rogers said many hoteliers were able to delay loan payments during the pandemic, but lending institutions are giving less leeway now that Americans are traveling again. That’s created financial difficulties for hotel owners who went without customers for much of last year, particularly those that rely on still-dormant business travel.
Hotel groups and labor union Unite Here are backing the Save Hotel Jobs Act, sponsored by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), which would give $20 billion to hotels.
The industry is trying to ward off GOP concerns about government spending and communicate to Democrats that most hotels, including those franchising with larger firms such as Marriott and Hilton, are small businesses.
“Our struggle has been communicating the message that assistance to our industry is very akin to assistance to the restaurant industry,” Rogers said. “These are small business owners that usually live and work in the local community.”
AHLA and the Asian American Hotel Owners Association hosted a virtual fly-in last week that connected 300 hoteliers with more than 50 House members and key senators, including Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
Hoteliers are also pushing Congress and the Biden administration to allow third-party management companies to take advantage of an employee retention tax credit included in a previous relief package. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is working with Biden officials to modify the tax credit, Rogers said.
“I wouldn’t say all of our eggs are in one basket for additional funding,” Rogers said. “There are some additional vehicles that if corrected could help today. But we are trying everything. We’re not going to stop.”
The recent surge in leisure travel but lack of business travel has created an uneven recovery for companies in the travel and tourism industries.
Peter Pantuso, president and CEO of the American Bus Association, said the bus industry is still only operating at around 50 percent capacity. Commuter buses in large cities remain largely empty as workers stay home.
Congress provided $2 billion for bus and motorcoach operators in the December stimulus package. But the Treasury Department has yet to distribute those funds, creating issues for the industry’s ask for an additional $8 billion in assistance.
“The biggest single stumbling block with members of Congress is that they want to see us spend the money first,” Pantuso said. “It’s a Catch-22 situation where until the Treasury got the program up, we weren’t able to spend that money.”
Last year, two-thirds of House and Senate lawmakers co-sponsored a bill that would provide $10 billion for buses, but that figure got reduced in the final relief package. Pantuso wants lawmakers to make up the difference in Democrats’ reconciliation bill.
“The window is really closing,” he said. “This is our opportunity if we’re going to get it done.”
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