A total of 186,200 restaurants, bars and other eligible businesses applied for help from a new $28.6 billion federal aid program in the first two days it was accepting applications, President Biden said Wednesday, indicating huge demand from a struggling industry for limited relief funds.
The Restaurant Revitalization Fund was created by Congress as part of the $1.9 trillion relief bill passed in March. Business owners who were hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic can apply for grants of up to $10 million.
The return of the dining industry will be a major test of Mr. Biden’s goal of getting back to normal, both for 2.3 million people whose restaurant jobs disappeared during the pandemic and for vaccinated Americans eager to go out and socialize again.
Promoting the new fund, Mr. Biden said on Wednesday that restaurants were “woven into the fabric of our communities” and described the industry as one of the best paths for many people to achieve the American dream.
“One in three Americans, a restaurant provided their first job,” Mr. Biden said. “More than half of all Americans have worked in a restaurant at some point in their lives.”
For the first 21 days, the Small Business Administration will only approve claims from businesses that are majority-owned by women, veterans or individuals who qualify as both socially and economically disadvantaged.
The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said Wednesday that 97,600 of the applications received in the program’s first two days had come from businesses owned by people who fell into those categories.
“We look forward to implementing that program,” Ms. Psaki said, emphasizing the high demand for the relief funds. But it’s not clear that high demand is necessarily a good thing for a program that has limited funding and will have to turn many needy businesses away.
“We know that the $28.6 billion is not enough to meet the demand,” Isabella Casillas Guzman, the small business administrator, said last week. “However, we need to demonstrate that demand, and we need to encourage everyone to apply and access this fund as much as possible and demonstrate what remaining need is out there.”
Ms. Psaki said the administration would be open to seeking more funding from Congress in the future. Mr. Biden said the high demand should prove to skeptics that the program was badly needed.
Before his own remarks at the White House, Mr. Biden purchased tacos and enchiladas from Taqueria Las Gemelas, a Mexican restaurant in Washington that Ms. Psaki said was a beneficiary of the relief fund’s pilot program. The restaurant went from 55 employees before the pandemic to just seven, Mr. Biden said.
The program has yet to distribute any funds outside of the limited pilot.