This post was updated on March 18, 2020 at 2 PM ET.
While grocery stores are booming thanks to all our panic-buying amid the global coronavirus outbreak, restaurants and restaurant workers are having an awfully tough week. Seattle chef Tom Douglas has closed 12 of his 13 restaurants (temporarily, he hopes) and laid off workers. Some of the largest dim sum spots and banquet halls in New York City's Chinatowns have closed (also hopefully temporarily) due to a drop in business. After college closures and the postponement of the Boston Marathon, restaurants in the Boston area are getting pummeled.
It's happening everywhere, and it's bad news for anyone involved in the restaurant industry and anyone with a stake in it. If you've got favorite restaurants—and especially if those favorite restaurants are small, independent business whose margins are even smaller—that includes you. But here's how to help, even if you're not exactly feeling up for eating out right now.
Since we first published this piece, the situation for restaurants, bars, and service industry workers across the United States has turned more dire. As of this writing, 19 states have instituted limitations on restaurant operations, either in terms of dining-room capacity or mandating takeout/delivery only instead of dine-in service (a full list can be found on Eater). Many restaurants across the country have closed in response to the COVID-19 situation, putting millions of staff members out of work across the country.
We've updated our recommendations accordingly, and an extensive list of resources for restaurants and workers can be found via the Restaurant Workers' Community Foundation.
Can I go to restaurants during "social distancing"?
First things first: If you're experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, please follow the CDC's recommendation of self-quarantine and do not go out. But if you're symptom-free and following the recommended practice of "social distancing," the general advice is that it depends on context. Packed bars—if you can even find them at this point—seem to be a no-go.
As public health experts told The Atlantic, gathering in crowded public spaces isn't recommended at the moment, which is why New York recently cut restaurant capacities by 50 percent. But if you choose to go to restaurants and bars—at this point, in many cities, that's to pick up takeout or to-go drinks only—the recommendation is to keep 6 to 10 feet away from other people. Some good news: According to the USDA, there isn't currently evidence to suggest that coronavirus can be passed through food.
Buy gift cards to your favorite restaurants.
Restaurants need revenue right now, but revenue doesn't necessarily mean hanging out in a public space for a meal: Support your favorite spots financially by buying gift cards. Many restaurants make gift cards available for purchase on their website, but if you don't see any information, it's worth giving them a call or sending them an email or DM.
It's a win for both sides since the restaurant gets much-needed funds right now, while you get a meal you can cash in on once all of this panic mellows out. Think of it as a gift to your future self. A running list of restaurants selling gift cards online can be found on San Francisco Chronicle critic Soleil Ho's Instagram.
Or buy their merch.
If you don't like the idea of giving away money without instant gratification, maybe now's the time to order that tee or that tote you've been eyeing. Good thing so many restaurants have great merch designs! New Yorker writer Helen Rosner has compiled a two-part (so far) collection of restaurant merch on her Instagram stories.
Support small businesses while you're stocking your shelves.
While places like Milk Bar or Eli's Cheesecake—and surely many more—are doing business as usual by shipping online orders, Food & Wine has compiled a list of restaurants and bars who are also offering shoppers items they might not usually sell. That includes boxes of fresh produce, pantry staples like eggs and marinara sauce, and even their wine collections. With the grocery store lines undoubtedly busy, buying from restaurants directly is one way to stock your shelves without padding corporations' pockets.
Look, it sucks that the service and retail industries don't make it easy to simply stay home. But people are working and restaurants are open, and many of them are ramping up their takeout and delivery options to account for social distancing. You can have your favorite dish from the comfort of your couch.
As Food & Wine editor Khushbu Shah has pointed out, though, apps like Grubhub and Uber Eats haven't waived their high commission fees, which means restaurants could still be hit with 30 percent fees for using their platforms. If possible, order take-out and delivery directly from restaurants by calling them instead of using a delivery app—and make sure to use the number listed on their websites instead of the one posted on Yelp or Grubhub.
But for the love of god, please tip.
A popular tweet from reporter Cale Weissman suggested that people aren't tipping so well in the time of coronavirus. If you have the money to get food or coffee from a restaurant, whether that's delivered or takeout, throw some extra money in the tip jar. It's the decent thing to do most of the time, but it's especially essential right now.
New efforts like a virtual happy hour with bartenders who can provide company and guidance on making cocktails at home can be another way to tip service industry workers for their help while you're stuck inside.
Contribute to mutual aid efforts if you can.
Until the government decides if and how it will enact a stimulus plan for affected workers, organizations have established relief funds for those in the service industry, including the Restaurant Workers' Community Foundation's emergency relief fund and One Fair Wage's emergency coronavirus tipped and service worker support fund.
Some efforts are also happening on a smaller scale: New York establishments like Win Son and Tailfeather Bar are collecting money via Venmo to support undocumented workers who wouldn't otherwise receive assistance. Keep an eye on your favorite spots' Instagram pages, where they're likely to announce their own initiatives.
Reach out to your representatives.
If we're ever to expect restaurants to go back to normal, Eater's Hillary Dixler Canavan has made a compelling argument for government support of the restaurant industry in a piece titled "Restaurants Are Fucked — Unless They Get a Bailout." Feeling incensed after reading? Eater's accompanying script provides guidance on how to reach out to your representatives. What else are you going to do while you're stuck inside?