Trump hears restaurant owners' worries, sees good days ahead

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President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with restaurant industry executives about the coronavirus response, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Monday, May 18, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON – Restaurant owners gave President Donald Trump a sobering accounting Monday of the widespread damage the coronavirus pandemic has dealt their industry and asked him to adjust a loan program for small businesses to address their concerns. The president put a hopeful spin on the situation, saying encouraging news on vaccines and treatment efforts could “negate” the bad news.

The president was in good spirits as he met with the restaurant executives at the White House, noting that financial markets were up as states continued to loosen economic restrictions on businesses and following Moderna Inc.’s announcement of encouraging news in early work on vaccine development.

“This was a very big day, therapeutically, cure-wise and vaccine-wise,” Trump said. “Tremendous progress has been made, as I've been saying for two weeks, because I've been seeing what's going on and have been spearheading it largely."

“It almost feels like today is the first day," Trump said at another point in the meeting. “Last week didn't feel the same. Now it feels good. People are starting to go out. They're opening. They get it.”

Restaurant owners said they appreciated that the government had acted swiftly on assistance efforts, but cautioned that even opening up to more customers would not necessarily mean a return to profits because they'll be serving fewer customers.

They called for extending the eight-week period in which they must spend their Paycheck Protection Program loans in order to have the loans forgiven. An extension to 24 weeks would give them more time to adjust to the new customer constraints they face as states place limits on how many people can dine at restaurants.

“We rely on social interaction so it makes us really unique that we were hit hard quickly, and it’s going to make our comeback really difficult,” said Melvin Rodrigue, president and chief executive of Galatoire’s Restaurant in New Orleans.

Rodrigue told Trump he was “glad to hear your news" about vaccines, prompting Trump to respond: “My news negates what you just said because you would be back into business like you had it — no seats lost.”