President Joe Biden signed the latest coronavirus relief bill -- the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan -- into law Thursday afternoon. And while the legislation does have some helpful provisions for the travel agency community, the majority of the funds it allocates focus on the support of individuals and state and local governments, according to ASTA.
During a Facebook Live session on Thursday, ASTA's executive vice president of advocacy, Eben Peck, said the bill is less helpful to businesses than the Cares Act, passed in March 2020, and a subsequent relief bill passed in December.
Peck provided a breakdown of how the American Rescue Plan's funds will be spent. The majority, 25%, will go toward stimulus checks. Nineteen percent will go to state and local governments, and another 19% will aid the unemployed. Smaller percentages will help vaccination efforts (8%), education (9%) and children (6%). The remaining 14% will go to other categories, including help for businesses, Peck said.
The provisions helpful to the agency community include an extension of the Employee Retention Tax Credit (ERTC) through 2021, the extension of the additional unemployment benefits created by the Cares Act and a chance for businesses who didn't get a full $10,000 grant from the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program to make up the funds.
Also helpful, Peck said, is the $350 billion allocated for state and local governments. The governments are restricted on how they can spend that money, and one allowable use is for funding to aid impacted industries. The bill specifically points to tourism, travel and hospitality.
The Cares Act allocated some money to states, a number of which created grant programs that benefited ASTA members, Peck said. He believes a number of those programs will be reactivated.
The Society did not get some of its key asks, including a $9.3 billion grant program for travel agencies, the inclusion of travel agencies in the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, an extension of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and ERTC targeting the hardest-hit industries and a fix that will enable cruise lines to salvage the Alaska season if permitted to cruise by the CDC.
But Peck said there are some green shoots.
There has been bipartisan support to include travel agencies in the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program. These grants are up to $10 million, calculated by simply deducting 2020 revenue from 2019 revenue, the difference being the grant amount. Amendments were offered to the American Rescue Plan but ultimately were not accepted, yet Peck said that support is positive.
ASTA is also working with Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., on a proposal to set aside some money left in the PPP for which the hardest-hit industries could apply. Currently, under the PPP, businesses can take loans equal to two-and-a-half times their monthly payroll. Under the new proposal, businesses could take larger loans based on the amount of revenue they lost in 2020.
Under the American Rescue Plan, there is some movement to give extra ERTC benefits to those whose 2020 revenue was down substantially (90%). Peck believes that is a move in the right direction toward targeting funds to the hardest-hit businesses.
And finally, all three members of the Alaskan congressional delegation have introduced legislation to deem cruises from Washington to Alaska foreign voyages, which would enable cruises to circumvent the Passenger Vessel Services Act and visit the state.
Peck encouraged those who aren't members to join ASTA and for members and nonmembers alike to engage with the Society's advocacy work at asta.org/advocacy.