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Erie County small businesses "pray" the new federal stimulus bill will help them survive

Restaurants in the "Orange Zone" are especially being hard hit and say they need help quick
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Posted at 6:16 PM, Dec 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-22 18:24:13-05

HAMBURG, N.Y. (WKBW-TV) — With only a couple of days to go until Christmas, this would normally be a very busy time for Erie County restaurants as shoppers in a hurry would stop in for a bite to eat.

Not this year.

"We are worried about our future. It has been a struggle for small businesses right now," said Michael Gargano, manager at Uncle Joe's Diner in Hamburg.

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7 Eyewitness News Reporter Ed Reilly previously talked with Gargano on October 1, 2020, when cold weather was forcing the restaurant to take down its outdoor dining tents. At the time, Gargano was fearing a drop in business.

Since then, things have gone from bad to worse as Erie County is now an "orange zone" with no indoor dining allowed.

That caused income at Uncle Joe's Diner to drop another 30% and Gargano was forced to lay off more than 25 of his workers.

"I feel worse for my staff more than anything because I had to lay off all my servers. I had to lay off more than half of my cooks, dishwashers, and busboys," explained Gargano.

The family-owned business counted on Federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loans in June to keep itself in operation. "It paid our staff. It paid bills. It paid taxes," added Gargano.

In addition to selling takeout meals and gift cards, the restaurant manager is hoping a $900 billion stimulus package passed by Congress will help businesses, like his, hang-on until things return to normal.

"It is a light at the end of the tunnel that we hope for."

Under the Congressional plan, larger and more flexible PPP loans are available to restaurants. While it could keep those businesses afloat, Gargano hopes the new plan also has some forgiveness options.

"If it is just a loan we have to pay back, it is not going to be really that helpful," said Gargano.

Theaters are another business badly hurt during the pandemic.

Jay Ruof, the owner of the Hamburg Palace Theatre, told Ed Reilly that he will probably apply for more PPP loans under the Congressionally approved plan. The new stimulus package looks to offer PPP loans for businesses that have seen a 25% or more decrease in income.

"I think as long as we have these restrictions, we are glad to hear about any additional help," said Ruof

Ruof said his movie theater has lost about 75% of its yearly income in 2020.

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The Hamburg Palace Theatre counted on PPP loans early in the pandemic so it could operate a curbside concession business to generate income to pay bills. Those curbside concessions continue as a way to provide additional money for the theatre.

PPP loans made it possible for Ruof and his employees to work inside the historic building that opened in 1926. Without that, Ruof said, it would have been easy to have problems, like leaks, go unnoticed until they became bigger and more expensive problems.

New York State gave the Hamburg Palace Theatre permission to reopen in late October with a stipulation that only 50 patrons were allowed per show in the 600-person movie theater.

Seats are numbered where people can sit as they are spaced out twelve feet apart.

In an effort to get people to come back and feel comfortable, Ruof has chosen to show a number of classic films for free. The free offer runs until the beginning of January when it concludes with some "Three Stooges" and "Little Rascals" shorts.

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While hopeful, both businesses say they are waiting to see the specific details and 'small print' in the stimulus plan which is more than 5,500 pages long.