WASHINGTON — Restaurant owners gave President Donald Trump a sobering accounting 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 Monday 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 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."
The House passed legislation last week as part of another economic rescue package that allows employers to use the Paycheck Protection Program over 24 weeks, but the White House and Trump have been highly critical of the overall bill.
The National Restaurant Association reports that sales at food and drink businesses fell in April to their lowest level in more than 35 years, when adjusting for inflation. Sales came in at $32.4 billion, about half the level from just two months earlier.
Trump has consistently raised hopes and expectations for treatments and a vaccine, even as some of his counterparts around the globe remain cautious.
"So I'm very happy, and the market's up very big," Trump said earlier in the day at another White House meeting. He added that he thought the economy would soar as quickly as it fell in recent months, sometimes referred to as a V-shaped recovery. "I think you're going to have a V. I think it's going to be terrific."
Trump's remarks follow Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell's comments that the economy may need more help.
"The coronavirus shock is also the biggest shock that the economy's had in living memory," Powell said on CBS' "60 Minutes." "And the question is, will it be enough? And I don't think we know the answer to that. It may well be that the Fed has to do more. It may be that Congress has to do more. And the reason we've got to do more is to avoid longer-run damage to the economy."
Senior adviser Kevin Hassett said the White House is in a "wait-and-see mode" on whether the country needs more help from the federal government.
"It's been really encouraging to see how quickly businesses around the country have begun to ramp up," Hassett told reporters.
Trump met with restaurant owners and executives in the afternoon. He again called for companies to be able to fully deduct business meals in restaurants and for other entertainment expenses.
"That's going to create a tremendous amount of business. I think you're going to have to open a lot of additional restaurants in this country," Trump told the executives.