When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, Dana Pezza, owner of Itri Wood Fired on Bristol Borough’s Mill Street, had one goal – to not lay off any of her employees. But with income based solely on takeout and delivery because of indoor dining restrictions, she wasn’t sure this goal would be feasible.
Earlier this year, Pezza was thrilled to learn that Itri was one of 196 Bucks County businesses to receive funding through the COVID-19 Hospitality Industry Recovery Program, or CHIRP. Nearly $7 million was distributed throughout the county out of Pennsylvania’s total $145 million. Itri received $40,000.
“If we had not been able to secure such funds as the CHIRP grant, we would’ve never been able to stay open. We would’ve never been able to keep our employees working,” said Pezza. “They are more to us than just employees. If we shut our doors, how would that impact them and their families?”
Pezza applauded CHIRP during a recent news conference at the Bristol Wharf. The event was attended by Gov. Tom Wolf, who secured the $145 million in an effort to help the devastated hospitality industry.
He first announced his plan to address the economic crisis within the industry with a relief package on Dec. 23, 2020.
“It was barely six weeks later – and nothing happens in a bipartisan way in six weeks in Harrisburg – but this did,” shared Rep. John Galloway (D-Bucks). “Really, the first week we were back in session on Feb. 5, Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly supported and passed the bill, and later that day, the governor signed it into law.”
Wolf explained that the $145 million came from an excess in the Workers Compensation Trust Fund, which he was able to “dip into” without causing an increase in taxes.
“It was just there. What better use than to take it to businesses across the commonwealth, especially in the hospitality industry who are hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic? And that’s what we did,” he said.
All 67 counties in Pennsylvania applied to receive CHIRP funding. Counties administered the funding through one or more designated Community Economic Development Organizations or Community Development Financial Institutions, which began processing applications from businesses in each county on March 15.
In order to administer CHIRP locally, Bucks County partnered with Visit Bucks County, the Bucks County Economic Development Corporation and the Bucks County Redevelopment Authority.
As a former business owner prior to embarking on a political career seven years ago, Wolf said he’s happy the program is making a positive difference.
“The idea was to make sure they had the money they couldn’t get while the COVID pandemic was ravaging the commonwealth and the world,” he said. “It’s just one more way we’re all trying to get Pennsylvania back on its economic feet after the pandemic.”
Steve D’Ettore, Deputy Secretary of Technology and Entrepreneurship at the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, whose father managed a restaurant in Philadelphia, shared Wolf’s sentiment.
“These restaurants are gathering places. They are owned by our family, friends and neighbors. When you stop and think about it, restaurants serve as the backdrop of our lives. They’re where we go when we want to celebrate a special occasion, like an engagement, or just to see a familiar face,” he said. “Their businesses aren’t just their livelihood. They’re the lifeblood of the community and anchors of neighborhoods.”
Commissioner Bob Harvie was on hand at the event to thank Wolf for his efforts.
“2020 was a year of resilience. Everybody here had to alter something about their lives, or in most cases, everything about their lives just to get through the year. Bucks County had to adapt and develop new ways to help our business communities. We created a Bucks Back to Work grant program literally from the ground up,” Harvie said, adding that the program distributed $27 million to 1,300 local businesses.
But more help was still needed.
“I can’t say strongly enough how much we appreciate the governor’s efforts to institute the CHIRP program because out of all the industries that suffered last year, the hospitality industry really suffered tremendously,” said Harvie. “The CHIRP program coming along when it did was perfect timing.”
Also on hand at the conference was Betty Rodriguez, vice president of the Bristol Borough council.
“It’s been very useful for our community because we’ve been trying to keep Mill Street afloat and it’s hard, especially when COVID hit. A lot of the businesses weren’t able to flourish the way they were. They had to do a lot of takeout and that dampered a lot of things,” she said. “We’re working hard with them and everyone to make it what it used to be, if not better.”
Pezza concluded the event with remarks about her hopeful outlook for the future.
“Moving forward, we know the nature of our business. The restaurant industry is changed forever and these funds have helped us start making steps to adapt,” she said. “Living and owning a business in Bristol Borough is an honor. Our town continues to thrive.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com