Grant program to assist winterize New Fortress County eating places

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Jennifer Kmiec, the Committee of 100 Executive Director, speaks about a $300,000 fund to help restaurants winterize outdoor dining. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

NEWARK — New Castle County and the Committee of 100 have partnered up to create a $300,000 grant fund focused on getting restaurants and bars through the impending winter season, a traditionally weak sales period.

Approved by the New Castle County Council on Tuesday night, the Winter Ready Restaurant Grant program will pay for heaters, tents, awnings, outside furniture and more to keep restaurants open this winter as indoor capacity is still limited to 60% occupancy under the state’s pandemic guidelines. Grants are capped at $5,000 per award and will cover expenses incurred from March 1 to Dec. 30. To be eligible, dining establishments must have a temporary outdoor sales permit through the New Castle County Department of Land Use or the equivalent temporary or permanent permit from municipalities in the county. Applications opened Oct. 14, and the Committee of 100, a nonprofit association of Delaware business leaders that works to promote responsible economic development, will be responsible for administering the program.

New Castle County is using a portion of its federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to fund the initiative, one of many programs it’s unveiled to ease the financial burden on residents and businesses. The county received $320 million from the federal government, and all but approximately $80 million will be spent on programs for innovation, distance learning, food distribution, and statewide virus testing, according to county officials.

Earlier this summer, the Delaware Restaurant Association (DRA) reported that restaurants faced a $700 million loss in the first five months in the pandemic, and many are concerned that it may get worse as winter arrives. Out of hope to slow transmission of COVID-19, Gov. John Carney closed restaurants and bars until May, gradually allowing them to reopen at 30% and now 60% capacity.

Many restaurants looked outside their doors to expand seating options, and there have been municipality-sponsored al fresco dining initiatives in Wilmington and Newark. Jennifer Kmiec, the Committee of 100’s executive director, noted that in Wilmington, it’s been successful in the summer and the fall, but many restaurants worried they were “facing a cliff” with winter on the way. Quickly, she called New Castle County officials to create the grant program to help them endure longer.

“We want to make sure that your restaurants are all still here and viable once Delaware’s able to safely, fully open again,” Kmiec said during a Wednesday press event unveiling the grant program. “This is a very simple application process and we can get the funds turned around pretty quickly to get restaurants winterized and keep going on.”

The DRA lauded the program, noting that restaurants have faced hard choices with the impending winter while working within guidelines set by the state. DRA Communications Director Karen Stauffer noted this could create an innovative experience for patrons, including cozying up under heaters in a starlit night.

“Delaware restaurants are facing unique challenges as we move towards colder weather months, losing the outdoor seating capacity that was a savior during the summer season, all while still seating guests at reduced occupancy. We sincerely thank Matt Meyer, New Castle County, and the Committee of 100 for their quick and creative thinking to help our industry,” Stauffer told the Delaware Business Times. “We can’t wait to get out and continue to support our favorite local restaurants this fall.”

New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer pointed out that since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Delaware, it’s been a lesson in resilience for small businesses in the First State.

“In March, we learned to quarantine and to take extreme measures to keep safe. What we’re learning now is how to prioritize public health while we continue our lives and while we keep it a functional economy,” he said. “This is just another way we can keep our community healthy and our small businesses vibrant during this challenging time.”

Ryan German, the owner of the Newark Main Street mainstay Caffe Gelato, noted that an extra $5,000 would help tremendously with unexpected expenses this year. Caffe Gelato has expanded outdoor seating onto the sidewalk in Newark, complete with decorative plants and heaters. One heater per outside table costs $300, he said.

“When we have dining al fresco on Wednesday night, that’s 150 people and a difference of $3,000 above normal,” German said. “Big business and nationally traded companies can get as much capital as they want. But for small businesses, this is how we get capital: by winterizing our space.”

To apply for the Winter Ready Restaurant Grant program, visit committeeof100.com

By Katie Tabeling

[email protected]es.com

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