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Food And Beverage Industry Hit Hard By Coronavirus Outbreak


It is a hugely uncertain time for those in the service industry. Restaurants and bars have been closing their doors, and that has meant so many people have already lost their jobs. We bring you now the stories of three people trying to figure out what happens next.

SIMONE BARON: My name is Simone Baron (ph). And I work in the service industry, I have for 34 years. And I currently live in Seattle, Wash. I was working for Tom Douglas restaurants. Tom decided to close all of his restaurants, laying off 800 people. It's pretty devastating. Everybody's really unsure how they're going to pay their rent, pay their mortgages, feed their children, feed their families.

We all know that if we don't get that next paycheck that a lot of us are going to be in some deep trouble. And then that's the other thing that we're all worried about is if we will have jobs to go back to. So we're all really panicked right now. Yeah.

DARYL NUHN: My name is Daryl Nuhn (ph). And I am a partner in a wine store and bar in Manhattan. We have a shop. And we also have a bar. And we're in an open marketplace. So the sales of the bar dropped pretty drastically. But people were buying wine in a way that was, like, pretty panic-inducing, like just, like, cleaning out our shelves so quickly.

Quickly after that, everything had to shut down except for our retail store. But then nobody was going to be allowed to come down. So we were only allowed to do deliveries, which we had never done before. People are, like, calling us in Queens and being like, hey, can you come to Bayside? And we're like, should we go to Bayside and drop off a bottle of wine to someone? It's a fascinating new reality.

SIMAR SORIANO: My name is Simar Soriano (ph). I am a food server in San Francisco, Calif. The last couple of weeks have been extremely stressful and pretty scary. A lot of people stopped coming out. Normally, I work six shifts a week. And last week, I was scheduled three shifts a week. I basically used the last of my money to pay off bills for this month and to buy what groceries I could.

And I really don't have even $100 to my name now. And I'm really not sure what I'm going to be doing for rent or bills next month. I've already applied for unemployment insurance. But I know that'll take weeks to come through. And it still probably won't be sufficient to support me. San Francisco's so expensive. And my rent is a great worry to me right now.

MARTIN: It's a difficult time for so many people. What can be done? We're going to put that question to Sean Kennedy. He's an executive vice president at the National Restaurant Association. That organization represents more than half a million restaurant businesses. And they sent a letter to the White House and congressional leaders yesterday asking for critical help. Thanks so much for being with us, Sean.

SEAN KENNEDY: Good morning.

MARTIN: What kind of help are you looking for?

KENNEDY: There are really three buckets that the restaurant industry is looking at right now. One is just immediate access to cash, second is medium and long-term access to credit and then tax relief for the industry when we come back online. This is really the perfect storm for the restaurant industry.

This is not like a natural disaster that's located in one particular area that passes quickly and we focus on rebuilding. This is a nationwide problem in which states and localities are just shutting down restaurant operations across the nation without a lot of warning and with tremendous impact for us and our workforce.

MARTIN: It's certainly early days. But, I mean, given what we're seeing, do you have any estimate as to how many people in the industry could ultimately end up unemployed?

KENNEDY: That's a great question right now. What a lot of restaurants are doing is trying to retool, trying to allow for more takeout, drive-through, delivery services. For a lot of restaurants, they just physically aren't able to configure themselves that way. For other restaurants, they're looking at whether or not switching to that business model is going to generate enough revenue to keep the doors open and the burners turned on.

MARTIN: All right. So my sister happens to work in the restaurant industry. I was talking to her yesterday. And she was just heartbroken because this is work - as you know, people who work in the industry, they socialize with their coworkers. They become sort of your extended family. Her entire community, her entire network has been affected by this. We heard from some employees just a couple minutes ago who are deeply concerned about their own future. What is your message to them right now?

KENNEDY: It is heartbreaking. And a lot of our restaurant owners view their employees as family - almost all of them do. What am I saying? But it's one in which we are really struggling with the best approach we can take. That's why our big ask - making such an aggressive ask of Congress right now. This is a national pandemic. It's a public emergency.

So we need the public government to step in and provide this funding so that - our goal right now is really just to keep these employees on payroll, allow them to continue to work for us even if we're not operational, even if we're in hibernation, so to speak, so that as soon as we get the all-clear signal from public health officials, we can pivot. We can open up those doors. And we can bring everyone back online as quickly and immediately as possible.

MARTIN: You nodded to this earlier. But are there going to be restaurants that just can't survive because they can't make it on takeout alone?

KENNEDY: We are really trying to avoid that. But what is challenging right now is we don't know. A natural disaster has a beginning, a middle and an end. We're in the beginning of this right now. And we cannot forecast how long we're going to be in this position or when we'll be allowed to open.

Restaurants generally measure their cash flow and available credit in days, weeks - probably not months. So as this becomes a sustained problem, restaurants are going to have some really tough decisions to make, which is why we need Congress to act quickly.

MARTIN: We've heard these calls to the public to buy a gift certificate to their favorite neighborhood restaurant as a show of support. Is that something you think is a good idea right now?

KENNEDY: We absolutely support that. Obviously, we are focused right now on serving our community. These are difficult times for everybody. And usually...


KENNEDY: ...If it's a snow day, if it's a natural disaster, folks are going to the restaurants. We don't want to change that at all. We want to continue to be...


KENNEDY: ...The centerpiece and the cornerstone for these communities.

MARTIN: Sean Kennedy with the National Restaurant Association. We appreciate it.

KENNEDY: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONMA'S "BONFIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.