Future uncertain for local restaurants dealing with COVID-19

Nathan Baker • Mar 17, 2020 at 7:25 PM

As officials attempt to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus with recommended and mandated limits on group sizes, independent restaurant owners and employees worry they will be the first economic victims of COVID-19.

On Monday, President Donald Trump recommended Americans avoid groups of 10 or more and to not drink or dine in restaurants for the next 15 days among precautions for containing the virus, which disproportionately affects the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Instead, he advised citizens to use drive-through, pickup or delivery options.

In an industry with notoriously thin operating margins, local restaurant owners’ responses to the presidential guidelines varied.

The Firehouse Restaurant in Johnson City announced online that it would suspend dining room operations Tuesday until further notice, and offer only carryout and catering orders.

Jamie Lee Strickler and Melvin Bentley, owners and operators of Red Pig Bar-B-Q, decided to keep their north Johnson City restaurant’s dining room open.

Bentley said employees have taken extra care to clean tables and food prep surfaces and removed some tables from the dining room to give extra distance between patrons.

He said Tuesday, amid fears of the virus and a day after official recommendations against eating out, was one of the worst days he’s seen at the restaurant for dine-in customers.

“If worse comes to worse, we’ll close the dining room, but it hasn’t come to that point yet,” Bentley said.

To address another COVID-19-related shutdown of the state’s schools, Red Pig will offer free meals to children in the area who stop by the restaurant.

Bentley said employees will give out barbecue sandwiches or hotdogs, chips, drinks and cookies until inventory is depleted.

Jamie Dove, owner of Main Street Pizza Company restaurants in Johnson City and Kingsport and County Line Pie in Chuckey, said he decided to close altogether Tuesday.

Dove said he’d been working in the Chuckey restaurant the past few weeks, and patrons didn’t seem to be taking health officials’ warnings seriously. He didn’t want one of his restaurants to be the point of contagion for a deadly virus.

“People were still hugging and touching each other, touching their faces, coughing into their hands and then touching all the surfaces,” he said. “If everybody doesn’t do what’s been recommended, it doesn’t matter much.

“I could hear people’s hubris, talking about how this virus isn’t that bad, it’s like the flu. I heard conversations that made me cringe.”

Dove sent an email Monday night to the group’s 80 employees notifying them of the shutdown and layoffs. A few employees will stay on longer to shut the three restaurants down.

Perishable food was divided up and distributed to the employees with their owed wages.

“I’ve never had to lay off anybody in my life,” Dove said. “This is uncharted territory for all of us.”

He said he submitted information to the state Department of Labor that should expedite the process for his former employees seeking unemployment benefits.

Theresa Garnett, general manager at Mid City Grill, said the Johnson City restaurant likewise decided to close. Managers were in the process Tuesday of working with the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development to ensure unemployment benefits for its 20 employees.

A handwritten sign on the business’ door said Tuesday the restaurant hopes to be open again in two weeks.

“It’s going to hurt,” Garnett said of the revenue dead time. “I’m hoping the government is going to come through for small businesses.”

Last week, the U.S. Small Business Association announced the availability of low-interest disaster assistance loans to help owners impacted by COVID-19. The president and members of Congress also hinted at an economic stimulus package meant to stave off another economic recession.

Without some help, Dove said he expects thousands of independent restaurants to go under, which could have a disastrous impact on the national economy as employees are permanently laid off and consumer spending drops.

“I can make it three weeks to a month without any help,” he said. “I might could afford to buy groceries in one month. When I have to start making payments in all three locations, I won’t make it long, and I know people in a lot worse situations than me.”

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