Andiamo owner leading charge to defy COVID-19 order netted at least $1.8M in PPP funds

Officials call for federal action to help struggling small businesses

By: - December 1, 2020 6:29 pm

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Updated, 4:44 p.m., 12/2/20

As Michigan closes in on 10,000 fatalities from the COVID-19 pandemic, metro Detroit businessman Joe Vicari is calling on restaurants across the state to defy any additional health restrictions. Earlier this year, the owner of the Andiamo chain received more than $1 million in federal pandemic funding.

“Our industry cannot survive another extended closure,” Vicari wrote in the letter, published by WDIV-TV in Detroit. “Thousands of restaurants and tens of thousand of our employees cannot survive it either. We need to band together and FIGHT BACK, but we need to do this as a United Group of Michigan Restaurant Owners.”

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has issued an epidemic order closing restaurants and bars for in-person dining for three weeks, which is set to expire Dec. 8. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said at a Tuesday press conference that no decision has been made yet to extend the measure.  

Vicari’s plea is met with some empathy by U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.), although he does not support the call to ignore health orders. 

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“It’s not surprising that people lash out at the governor because she is standing in the breach,” said Levin, who represents Macomb and Oakland counties. 

He criticized the federal government’s failure to respond to the pandemic as a public health crisis leaving states to create a mishmash of responses amidst a jumble of confusing messaging from the White House on down. 

But he said Vicari and others should direct their frustration at Republican lawmakers in Congress for failing to act on COVID-19 relief since this spring. 

“I think what Joe Vicari is doing is a symptom of a problem which is that we have not been able to get our Republican colleagues in the Senate or in the White House to negotiate anything or pass anything to help small businesses, to help workers, to help everybody,” Levin said.  

Records show Vicari and his various restaurant holdings have received between $1.8 million and $3.1 million in loans from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a federally funded forgivable loan program passed in the spring as part of a national bailout aimed at preventing the pandemic-battered economy from collapsing. According to SBA.com, Vicari’s loans supported 327 jobs. 

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Vicari did not respond to emails seeking comment for this story. His voicemail was full so a message could not be left for him. 

“That was a one-time thing,” Levin noted of the PPP. “It’s not like that is continuing. So we need something.”

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) was critical of Vicari’s letter.

“The state issued its orders for a good reason – cases are spiking with no end in sight, and we all must continue to sacrifice to take care of our neighbors,” said Tlaib, who represents Wayne County. “Andiamo restaurants got millions to ensure the safety of their workers and patrons, while many other businesses did not. That they are now boasting plans to willfully ignore safety measures and calling on others to follow suit in the wake of this latest COVID surge is as offensive as it is ignorant. Lives are at stake.”

The struggles of the hospitality industry drove Levin to join U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) in sponsoring the RESTAURANT Act. The bill, which passed the House Oct. 1, would provide $120 billion in direct relief for restaurants. Levin said the grants would be determined based on a comparison of 2019 revenues and 2020 revenues. The program would then “make whole” the restaurants by cutting a check for the difference. 

Levin argues that had the federal government treated the pandemic as a public health emergency the government would fund a variety programs including contact tracing, robust testing and quarantine support. 

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“Can you imagine what help it would be for hotels if they served as isolation locations for people with COVID who could not shelter at home?” Levin asked. “And the restaurants would definitely keep their doors open providing food for people.”

But Levin said congressional Republicans have been unwilling to entertain any relief, with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) calling for a “pause” in legislative action a month before the election. 

“As a representative, I’ve fought hard to ensure that our small businesses were given some assistance as they fought to stay afloat during the pandemic,” said Tlaib. “I’ve raised alarms that even with that assistance that some businesses were left to scrape by — or shutter their doors indefinitely, especially many Black-owned businesses. I know that our restaurants are struggling and that these public health orders will hurt their businesses even more, and that’s why we need the Republicans in Washington to stop holding up the aid we are ready to deliver that these restaurants desperately need to stay afloat.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Tuesday proposed a stimulus compromise, although some restaurant groups have said it’s not enough.

Dr. Ijeoma Nnodim Opara from the Committee to Protect Medicare said she’s not particularly interested in political showmanship. She wants folks to focus on the public health implications. 

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“Sick and dead people are not going to come in to eat,” she said. “And they’re not going to be working either.”

With the state and the rest of the nation bracing for record breaking weeks of new infections, hospitalizations and intensive care unit (ICU) admits, Nnodim Opara pointed out some health systems are already reporting 80 percent capacity in their ICU units, indicating the state could be teetering on the edge of an overrun health care system that will be unable to help the sickest patients. 

“I think some people are operating under a misunderstanding of this disease. I don’t think they appreciate how dangerous this virus is,” she said.

Nnodim Opara said she recognizes the struggles local businesses are facing in the midst of the pandemic and supports further federal funding support to offset the losses, as happened in the spring. 

“The answer is to absolutely become intentional about supporting these businesses,” she said, “not to call on individuals to sacrifice themselves for the businesses.”

Update: Here is Rep. Tlaib’s full statement:

“As a representative, I’ve fought hard to ensure that our small businesses were given some assistance as they fought to stay afloat during the pandemic. I’ve raised alarms that even with that assistance that some businesses were left to scrape by — or shutter their doors indefinitely, especially many Black-owned businesses. I know that our restaurants are struggling and that these public health orders will hurt their businesses even more, and that’s why we need the Republicans in Washington to stop holding up the aid we are ready to deliver that these restaurants desperately need to stay afloat.

“However, the State issued its orders for a good reason – cases are spiking with no end in sight, and we all must continue to sacrifice to take care of our neighbors. Andiamo restaurants got millions to ensure the safety of their workers and patrons, while many other businesses did not. That they are now boasting plans to willfully ignore safety measures and calling on others to follow suit in the wake of this latest COVID surge is as offensive as it is ignorant. Lives are at stake. Our ability to return to some sense of normalcy is at stake. Congress needs to deliver restaurants and other small businesses relief today, but Andiamo restaurants should abide by the public safety measures and stop encouraging behavior that puts lives at risk.”

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Todd A. Heywood
Todd A. Heywood

Todd Heywood is an award-winning journalist with over 30 years of experience. He's worked in print, online, radio and television. His reporting has been cited by the U.S. House of Representatives as well as in the United Nations reports on HIV. He's an avid vintage Star Wars collector and lives in Lansing with his three dogs.

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