When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Matt Jenne, owner of Sophia’s and Addison’s restaurants in Columbia, didn’t know what to expect.
“Really, in those early, early days, we had no idea of what the future was,” he said. “We didn’t know if we were going to be open a week from then. We didn’t know if we were going to be able to make it.”
Jenne, along with business owners across the country, had to adapt his restaurants to new waves of safety regulations. As his restaurants operated far below their capacities, profits dwindled. Now, more than a year after the coronavirus came to Columbia, Jenne and other business owners, still dealing with the fallout, have asked the city for relief by waiving certain business fees.
Jenne, along with Columbia Chamber of Commerce President Matt McCormick and a group of local business owners, has been talking to city officials for months about the impacts restrictions have had on local business. Through these meetings, the business owners began to explore ways the city might be able to help.
The group asked the city to consider waiving business license, liquor license and food inspection fees. Altogether, these can cost bars and restaurants anywhere from $310 to $1,770 per year, according to data provided by Columbia Finance Director Matthew Lue. The total depends on several factors, including the business’s total income and the type of alcohol it serves.
Over 110,000 eating and drinking establishments across the country closed either permanently or temporarily in 2020, and restaurant industry sales plummeted $240 billion, according to the National Restaurant Association, meaning any extra money could be influential for local businesses.
“It just helps in the sense that that’s one less bill that we have to worry about paying,” Jenne said.
The past year has been complicated, Jenne said. He has had to consider a number of factors in operating his restaurants, including keeping customers and staff safe from the virus.
The city attempted to slow the spread by placing social distancing restrictions on the community, including businesses.
Last March, Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services issued an order allowing no more than 10 people inside a business at a time, closing bars and limiting restaurants to take-out only. Days later, the local stay-at-home order began, and all nonessential businesses had to shut their doors.
Gradually, the health department lifted restrictions. Businesses were allowed to reopen in May 2020. By March 2021, the city removed its occupancy limits on businesses, with masking and social distancing still required.
While Jenne said he respected the work the city did to keep people safe, the combination of limited operations and people staying home meant business lagged.
“We want to be good citizens, absolutely,” he said. “We want to make sure our customers are safe, and we’re doing our part to mitigate the pandemic, but then there’s also financial pressure. We have employees that we have to keep employed; those employees have to pay the rent.”
With that in mind, business owners turned to the city for help.
However, the city has its own finances to consider. With 4,568 business licenses and 304 liquor licenses active in Columbia, eliminating these fees would mean a financial hit in an already difficult year.
The 2021 fiscal year budget anticipates over $1.2 million in revenue from business licenses, liquor licenses and food handling fees. In 2020, these combined fees brought in just under that amount — about $1.17 million — according to data provided by Lue.
A portion of the food inspection fees goes to the health department, Lue said. The remainder, along with revenue from business and liquor licenses, feeds into the general fund, which goes to departments like police, fire, administration and public works.
Instead of waiving the fees outright, Lue said the city is considering creating a forgivable grant program for business owners using general fund reserves made available through CARES Act reimbursements. He said the city hopes to bring the idea before the Columbia City Council at one of its upcoming meetings, potentially May 3.
The city has used CARES Act money to help small businesses several times since the beginning of the pandemic, providing over $1.1 million to 128 local businesses. Even more are on a waitlist for relief.
McCormick said conversations with city staff have left him optimistic they will be able to work out a way for the city to get funds to businesses, particularly those that have been hard hit by the restrictions.
“We’ve had a great communication line and open communication with the city about it,” he said. “It’s been a good conversation, and it’s looking promising that there will be something in place that our bars and our restaurants and such could be able to take advantage of with the assistance of the city.”
Lue echoed this thought, saying he hopes the city will be able to help.
“We do know that this pandemic has been trying for a lot of our businesses,” he said. “We’re going to do as much as we can to help them out and keep them in Columbia.”
After a year of changing plans, reducing staff and making sacrifices, Jenne said the money he might save on licensing fees could help him keep his doors open, pay his employees, provide the community with food and boost the local economy.
“Restaurants right now, we’re not operating at a profit,” he said. “Most restaurants are lucky to be breaking even, but I would suggest that we’re probably having to make cuts in order to stay open. This reduces that a little bit.”