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“Open for takeout and delivery.” The slogan, or some variation, has been plastered on the windows of restaurant after restaurant in the weeks since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. As the virus continues to spread, many state governments have ordered dining establishments to close or limit their seating areas to prevent further contagion.
Restaurants scrambled to adjust to takeout or delivery models to stay afloat, and some states modified alcohol licensing regulations to allow bars to deliver alcohol. But a delivery-only plan isn’t viable for all eateries, and some have simply shut down, hoping to reopen once the worst of the pandemic passes and people can safely gather again.
As the coronavirus spreads and restrictions tighten, owners across the United States are facing a dilemma as they weigh public health and economic setbacks and their employees’ safety and financial security. Restaurants often operate on narrow profit margins, and for some the decision to shut down temporarily could lead to permanent closure. It’s not only about the owners: The more than 5 million people employed in the food and beverage industry in the United States also need to pay their bills.
Why there’s debate
Some say that all restaurants should close, including takeout, to preserve public health. Even employees working in the same kitchen, they argue, puts people at risk and could cause workers to bring the virus home to their families. Additionally, many restaurant workers lack paid sick leave and feel pressured to work or lose their jobs — leading them to come in even if they’re feeling ill.
Others say restaurants should stay open for takeout to try to preserve the business and employment of as many workers as possible. Takeout and deliveries, as well as gift cards, can help mitigate sales losses, which could save a restaurant. Remaining open also helps to put money in workers’ pockets to pay their own bills at home, even if the restaurant cannot turn a profit.
More restaurants are expected to close as the outbreak continues across America. Whether the shutdown is partial or complete, by government order or choice, owners are wondering how they will keep their businesses afloat. Some worry that without government aid, the pandemic spells the end of the restaurant industry as we know it.
We need to social distance. That’s not possible while operating a restaurant.
“How do we social distance in our kitchen? How can we even do that? Lucia is 1,100 square feet, and that is the whole restaurant, not just the kitchen. How do you do the act of cooking and keep 6 feet of distance between you at all times?” — Jennifer Uygur, Lucia owner, to Dallas Morning News
Deliveries don’t bring in enough money
“Some restaurants are offering deliveries, but the money that business would bring in wouldn’t equal what my staff could receive in unemployment benefits, which, because Dirt Candy had a no-tipping policy and paid a higher hourly wage instead, will be near the top of the scale.” — Amanda Cohen, Dirt Candy owner, New York Times
We’re staying open so I don’t lay off my employees
“There’s no profit in it, but I don’t think that’s the point right now. It’s just keeping afloat and keeping these people employed so that they can make money for their families that need it.” — Katherine Denman, Katie’s Restaurant & Bar owner, to Gambit
I’m a worker. I don’t want to bring the virus to my family.
"I fear catching this virus and taking it home. I'm already poor. I live paycheck to paycheck, but I would much rather be out of work to help prevent the spread to my children or anyone else." — A McDonald’s worker to Business Insider
Government relief is necessary
“I’m not being hyperbolic in any way. Without government intervention, there will be no service industry.” — David Chang, Momofuku chef-founder, to the New York Times
The industry will never be the same
“The American restaurant industry — and the people who work in it — was always perched on a cliff. The fast-moving, widespread nature of the novel coronavirus pandemic is poised to push both the businesses and its workers over the edge. We don’t know what comes after the fall. The restaurant industry in America’s cities certainly won’t look the way it did before.” — Hillary Dixler Canavan, Eater
Even a pizza will be a splurge
“All Americans are going to take a hit in their pocketbooks and splurge less frequently as the economy recovers. ... When people don’t have any money, even ordering a pizza is a splurge. Pizzerias are going to suffer too.” — Brandon Hayato Go, Hayato chef-owner, to the Los Angeles Times
I am scared but hopeful for the future of my business
“I’m scared for my family, my friends, my customers, and mostly my employees. I’m tired and depressed. On Thursday, I had to basically close down my business that I’ve worked every day for the last 10 years to build. I am hopeful that we will make it through, but it doesn’t help the knot I have in my stomach or the tension in my back and shoulders.” — Rumi Matsuyama, Maryland Meadworks owner, to the Washington Post
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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: David Zalubowski/AP