Fishers, brewers, distillers: What aid do they need to survive Covid-19?

As the spread of the novel coronavirus disrupts business as usual across the country, food producers of all kinds are turning to the government for the help they say they need to stay afloat through the pandemic. From fishermen to produce growers to brewers, companies and organizations are lining up for federal aid as policymakers argue about the coming stimulus for small businesses.

In the fish sector, the closure of scores of restaurants and the destabilization of exports to China has forced the seafood supply chain to adapt to primarily servicing retail stores where possible. Yet even if some fishermen are able to shift to retail, the existing disruptions could be ruinous to many independent producers.

Take the Maine fishermen who catch elver eel. Roughly 1,000 fishermen in the state catch the baby eels and mostly send them to China, to the tune of about $20 million in revenue each year. Yet now they must wait at least two additional weeks to begin harvesting due to officials’ concerns about the spread of coronavirus. State policymakers say the nature of the fishing operations “makes it impossible to follow social distancing recommendations, including maintaining six feet from other people to reduce the spread of this disease,” according to Patrick Keliher, commissioner of Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Baby eels aren’t the only Maine seafood being affected by the pandemic. In a letter to President Trump on March 20, the state’s governor, Janet Mills, predicted a 50- to 90-percent decline in the value of the state’s fisheries, including lobster, scallops, clams, and groundfish. She asked for direct federal financial assistance, subsidies, and other support for the state’s fishing industry.

“In the short-term, harvesters have only limited opportunities within their communities to sell small quantities of product in hopes to earn just enough money to buy weekly necessities,” she wrote. “None of these self-employed harvesters are eligible for unemployment. In the long-term, it is clear that the collapse of the international and larger domestic markets will devastate Maine’s commercial fisheries.”

Mills’ call for federal support was echoed in a letter sent Monday to Senate leaders from Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska. The senators urged Congress to include federal procurement programs for seafood, disaster assistance to fishermen, and aid for vessel payments in the upcoming economic relief package.

“Some fisheries are completely shut down because there is no market for their fish. Seafood processors are struggling because closed restaurants are no longer buying fresh products,” the senators wrote. “When boats sit idle in port, unable to fish, fishing captains cannot make vessel loan payments or pay crewmembers. Crewmembers often depend on their captains to provide meals during fishing trips, and are therefore lacking meals and pay. Without congressional help, this industry might go bankrupt at the dock.”

The shutdown of the restaurant sector has also dramatically affected the produce supply chain, according to the United Fresh Produce Association, which represents over 1,500 produce companies. The group estimates that the sector is losing $1 billion a week in sales. In a letter sent to congressional leaders March 21, United Fresh CEO Thomas E. Stenzel asked for billions of dollars to aid produce growers and expand funding for SNAP and other federal programs that involve fresh produce buying. It also urged USDA to enhance flexibility in many of its programs, including piloting a new crop insurance program that would safeguard against future pandemic-related disruption.

The alcohol industry, too, has also ramped up its call for federal support. So far the industry has mostly succeeded in advocating that liquor stores be classified as “essential businesses” and allowed to continue operating even as many other retailers are forced to close. In many states, including those with shelter-at-home orders, such as Ohio, Michigan, Washington and California, liquor stores have been allowed to stay open.

But alcohol producers are facing an economic hit due to canceled events, closed restaurants, and the closure of tap and tasting rooms. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the alcohol industry’s lobby, is urging supporters to ask Congress for loan assistance and tax and tariff relief. The Brewers Association, which represents small breweries, is asking for $3 billion in relief and loan deferments, as well as federal sick and quarantine leave.

The likelihood that all of these demands will be included in the economic relief package is slim. Yet many food and farm groups are continuing their call for expanded government action to prevent the bankrupting of independent producers. The latest House version of the package, released Monday, included as its primary food benefits expansion of SNAP benefits and donation of $300 million of food to food banks.