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At This Hour

Restaurants Struggle As Omicron Cases Surge Across U.S.; Millions Of Families Struggle Without Child Tax Credit; Omicron Prompts New School Closures As More Districts And Universities Consider Return To Remote Learning. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired December 23, 2021 - 11:30   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN AT THIS HOUR: At this hour, more cities putting in place more restrictions to stop the spread of the omicron variant. Atlanta's mayor re-imposing a mask requirement for all indoor businesses. New York's private sector vaccine mandate goes into effect on Monday. And in Chicago, vaccinations will now be required to enter all restaurants starting January 3rd.

Whether helpful or hurtful, there is no doubt all of these new restrictions will have a direct impact on a restaurant industry that's already been crushed by the pandemic. As of August, a staggering 90,000 eateries had closed permanently or long-term during the pandemic. And now, some of the industry's biggest names are sounding the alarm of what another surge could mean two years in.

Joining me now is Bobby Stuckey, Founder of Frasca Food and Wine. He's also one of the leaders of the Independent Restaurant Coalition. It's a group formed during the pandemic to help the restaurants impacted. Bobby, thank you for coming back in.

The president and local officials have said of this surge, this is not March of 2020. We're not going to shut things down again. But restaurants are struggling again. What are you seeing? Is this time different or is it not?

BOBBY STUCKEY, INDEPENDENT RESTAURANT COALITION: Well, Kate, first of all, thanks for having me on. You know, it is -- it's very much a struggle for restaurants. Even if we're not faced with closures, many restaurants are hanging on by a thread. This is December. This is their Super Bowl month. And people are having to close because staff are getting COVID, guest reservations are down because guests are afraid to go out. Even if there isn't a mandate to close your restaurants, you're seeing a decrease in numbers.

BOLDUAN: It's already happening. It's real and it is happening. And even before omicron, Bobby, I was thinking about this, restaurants were already facing challenges, right, a national labor shortage, inflation raising prices across the board and more. I mean, what is the biggest challenge among them right now? STUCKEY: Well, the biggest challenge right now is -- and you've listed those, Kate. There are so many challenges that we're facing. There are so many headwinds. And many of these restaurants are holding on by a thread because of the last 18 months. Just because you see a couple Friday nights where (INAUDIBLE).

Now this (INAUDIBLE) the COVID variant, people are losing reservations. There's also the staffing issue. Once you get one or two employees test positive for COVID, it's hard to say open. You don't have the staff to stay open and you're forced to close. And when we close, it's not taking your laptop home and working from home. You give up tens of thousands of dollars of food product and spoilage when you have to close those restaurants and we need a lifeline. And there's a chance for that with the Restaurant Revitalization Fund if we could get that refunded.

BOLDUAN: I actually wanted to ask you about that because you successfully advocated and lobbied Congress to get some relief for independent restaurants in that big COVID relief package signed into law earlier this year. What impact did that have?

STUCKEY: Well, it depends if you were one of the winners or losers, Kate, because what happened was we successfully got into the package, but it was at $28.5 billion, and we needed about three times that. So, there were 200,000-plus restaurants that applied and didn't get it. So, what happened, because of the lack of full funding, you had some winners and some losers. Could have been two restaurants side by side on the same street in Main Street America, one got the package, one didn't. There's 200,000 of them holding on by a thread right now, hoping that we can refund the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. Of those 200,000, we're seeing a study of about 86 percent of those restaurants might not make it through this spring.

So, it's really dire. Yes, we were successful getting a portion, but we needed the whole funding.

BOLDUAN: That's really scary because everyone really thought, oh, we got through it, and then in 2021, things started getting better and it was coming back, right? And now to think that we're still looking at all of these potential closures you just laid out as could happen in the spring, it's soul-crushing, quite frankly, to see this again.

I will say one thing I've been interested in asking you about is we've seen a lot of innovation with restaurants in this pandemic, how they serve food, how they deliver food in a new way.


Do you think the industry has changed, I don't know, maybe permanently from what it had to deal with through COVID?

STUCKEY: Well, I'm a positive person and I always want to look on the bright side, and I think you're right, Kate. There have been some positives. There has been some great change. I know in my company alone, with our 200 employees, we really have been able to take this and look forward and try to build a better ship. And that's important. And, hopefully, we can get the Restaurant Revitalization Fund refunded, get those 200,000 restaurants that are in dire need to the other side, and hopefully we have a better industry.

BOLDUAN: It's good to see you, bobby. Thank you for coming on.

STUCKEY: Kate, have a great holiday. Thanks for having me on.

BOLDUAN: You too. Thank you so much.

Coming up for us, one of the biggest holdups in the negotiations over the Build Back Better bill has now become the child tax care credit. And right now, millions of families are going to see these enhanced payments stop. Their new reality now, that's next.



BOLDUAN: Here's a number for you, 35 million. That's how many families have lost their enhanced child tax care credit for next year. This is one of the central issues holding up negotiations on Capitol Hill over the Build Back Better bill. But the families impacted, they say Washington has no idea what the reality is every day.

CNN's Vanessa Yurkevich has the story.


VANESSA YURKEVICH, CNN POLITICS AND BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT (voice over): A window into the Viruet-Lopez family reveals Christmas cheer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I feel like the chocolate is gone and I wonder where it went.

YURKEVICH: But come New Year's, they'll face a tough financial reality along with 35 million other families.

JANETTE VIRUET, RECEIVES CHILD TAX CREDIT: We were at a tight budget already, and with this being like removed, it's going to be even a tighter budget.

YURKEVICH: Mom Janette Viruet referring to the enhanced child tax credit Congress failed to pass Build Back Better in time to extend these critical benefits into next year, up to $3,600 per child. The Lopez-Viruet family was receiving $800 a month for their three children under nine.

What does $800 a month mean to you?

VIRUET: It's enough to get us by just because the price of food went up, gas went up. So, I feel that that has helped us a lot. And we looked forward to that. We try to stretch it as much as we can.

YURKEVICH: How far does it get you?

VIRUET: Just a couple days before the next one. YURKEVICH: Checks were coming, monthly giving families' income they could count on. Last month's checks kept 3.8 million children out of poverty.

What is the plan?

VIRUET: At this point, I don't know.

YURKEVICH: Single Mom Katherine Kern will likely have to take a second job to support her teenage son and daughter, something she did when they were younger.

KATHERINE KERN, RECEIVES CHILD TAX CREDIT: Even before when I had to do jobs, like to not be able to watch his games because on weekends I was working. To not be there for him, that was sometimes a little difficult.

YURKEVICH: She's also getting a master's in psychology, just months away from graduating this spring, hoping it will further her career and increase her salary.

KERN: It's going to be really difficult to do that and then also possibly take on a second job.

YURKEVICH: The $500 a month they get in child tax credits help with rising costs, making it easier to drive her daughter, Isabella, to routine doctor visits for her complex heart condition.

KERN: We had to spend some time just like getting there and getting back. And then just all the little extras, like taking time off of work and everything, it sort of adds up.

YURKEVICH: the child tax credit is popular across party lines. 75 percent of Democrats support it and so do 41 percent of Republicans, which makes its failure in Congress even more puzzling for these families.

VIRUET: I feel that if they were put in our shoes for a couple of days, their decisions would be different just because we don't have that freedom to spend that money the way we want to. We have to spend our money planned, paycheck by paycheck.

YURKEVICH: Vanessa Yurkevich, CNN, Red Bank, New Jersey.


BOLDUAN: Vanessa, thank you so much for that reporting.

And this, I want to show you is video you really should stop and see. New body camera video just released capturing the unbelievable moment deputies find and rescue two infants in Kentucky in a bathtub after their home was destroyed and they were swept up in the deadly tornado outbreak earlier this month.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 329, we got the -- I think a 15-month-old. Central, can you send us Med Center?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They'll try to get them to you.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good there. No cuts on the leg.


BOLDUAN: You can hear that faint cry of one of the children as deputies are discovering them. Their grandmother says, as the tornado approached, she put them in the tub for safety with a blanket, pillow, and a bible. The children were just 15 months and 3 months old. One was taken to the hospital for treatment of a head injury, but they are both alive.


Thank God. It is unbelievable the things that we see.

Still ahead for us, as omicron cases soar, many school districts are now debating a return to remote learning. Is that the right call? One public health expert says, absolutely not. He's our guest.


BOLDUAN: With omicron cases surging, many school districts are now debating returning to remote learning after winter break. And right now, there are more than 700 schools or districts that either closed early due to COVID or already have shifted to remote learning.


And according to a company that tracks school operations during the pandemic, that's almost double the week before. The dark purple you see there, those circles, indicate the most recent school disruptions. Several big universities, including Harvard, UCLA, Duke, are also shifting to remote.

But is closing schools the right choice at this point in the pandemic? One expert in public health says no. In a New York Times op-ed, the director of Harvard's Healthy Buildings Program warns, we learned our lesson last year. Do not close our schools.

Joining me now is the author of that piece Joseph Allen. It's good to see you again. Thanks for coming back in.

You're very direct. You write this. You write, let me get it to make sure I'm quoting you correctly, the risk of severe outcomes to kids from coronavirus infection is low, and the risk to kids from being out of school are high. You also say schools should never close. What is the key then to keeping risk low instead of shutting schools when you're looking at this surge? JOSEPH ALLEN, PROFESSOR AND DIRECTOR, HARVARD HEALTH BUILDINGS PROGRAM: Yes. Thanks for having me back on, Kate. It's good to see you again. Let's start with the harms first and then we'll get to the low risk to kids. But there's a slippery slope happening here, this conversation that we're just going to close schools for a little bit and it's going to be okay. But I want to remind people what happened when we close schools and the cost of doing that last year.

In New York City, for example, just three months of school closures, they found an underreporting of child maltreatment by 8,000 cases, 8,000 cases of neglect and abuse that weren't reported. Schools are our first look into problems that are happening at home, when they extrapolate to the country, 300,000 cases in three months. We also see steep losses in learning, drops in math and reading. Students are five months behind. So the costs are real and they're a lot longer than that.

But let's talk about the risk to kids because that's been consistent since the beginning of the pandemic. Mercifully and thankfully, the risk has been low. People would be surprised though that the hospitalization rate for kids is still 1 in 100,000, the death rate, 1 to 2 per million. So, thankfully, kids are at low risk. The American Academy of Pediatrics just called this out two weeks ago. They said hospitalizations and death for children is, quote, unquote, uncommon.

So we have to balance these risks. We're so focused on COVID, we've ignored all these other risks and harms that we've seen from kids being out of school for an entire year.

BOLDUAN: How do you get it right? I know that you are the king of ventilation? How do you get it right though? What's the key? What's the fix to make sure that they are safe, they can -- to help them stay open the whole time?

ALLEN: Yes, absolutely. Ventilation, filtration has been key from day one in the pandemic. I've been yelling it out. I've been on your show several times talking about this, open the window even a little bit, even in areas that are cold.

But let's talk about the best tool we have and that's the vaccine. All kids should be vaccinated who are eligible. That's school-aged kids. I have three kids, school-aged kids. They are vaccinated. These vaccines are safe and effective. Also, all adults in the school must be vaccinated. There's no excuse for not having that at this point. When they have mandated vaccines for adults, like New York City did, they have pushed it over 95 percent vaccinated, same thing in L.A. Inexcusable at this point not to have adults vaccinated.

I also want to remind people there is still time for that benefit. If you're not vaccinated, the majority of the benefit kicks in right after the first dose within a week or so, you've got 10 or 12 days. Same thing if you're vaccinated but not yet boosted, the benefit of the booster kicks within days. So, there's still time to do these basic things, opening up the window, get your vaccine, get boosted. If you have a ventilation problem, plug and place solutions, like portable air cleaner. There's really no excuse at this point. And we have to balance that against the severe harms of keeping kids out of school. It is dangerous, the dominoes are starting to fall.

BOLDUAN: Let me ask you though. You talk about basic thing, easy things. A cornerstone of most school COVID strategies, most local public health strategies has been masking. I was really surprised to read that you say that you think masks in school should be voluntary, not mandatory. How can that be in the midst of a surge like we're seeing now?

ALLEN: Yes. I think the reality is in the 2022 playbook we have the tools to keep us safe. People have had access to these vaccines, all adults should be vaccinated and kids have access to the vaccine. And on top of that, anyone who doesn't feel protected enough should and can continue to wear a high efficiency mask. If you're vaccinated and wearing an N-95 mask, one of these high grade masks, that's about as low risk as anything can you do in your life.

We have the tools to meet everyone's, quote/unquote, acceptable level of risk. I think it should be mandatory at this point. I think we've ignored the harms of doing this, and we think kids are endlessly resilient. But you're coming up on two years, two years of school totally disrupted. The earliest learners, second graders have never been in class, learning to read, they've never been in class without being in a mask and without their teacher in a mask.

I think we're underestimating the cost here of these long-term closures. And I'm concerned that as schools start to close, they think they are going to close for two weeks but we saw what happened last time, they stayed close for a lot longer.

BOLDUAN: You always make me think.


Joseph, it's good to have you on. Thank you.

ALLEN: Thanks for having me. Merry Christmas, Kate.

BOLDUAN: You too, thank you.

Coming up for us, it is the second Christmas in the COVID pandemic but it looks a lot like pre-pandemic Christmas travel. An update next on what's expected to be the busiest day of the holiday travel day this season, that's next.



BOLDUAN: We do have breaking news into CNN.