It didn't take long for Kary Wayson to notice something was off when she walked into work on Wednesday evening. The dining room of Seattle's Serious Pie, the upscale pizza joint where she worked, was almost completely empty. Soon after, Wayson's manager gave her the news: The restaurant's owner, celebrity chef Tom Douglas, had made the decision to shutter 12 of his 13 Seattle restaurants and lay off almost all of his 800-person staff, including Wayson.
As fears surrounding the coronavirus continue to worsen, restaurants like Douglas' are scrambling to figure out how to stay afloat. In an effort to slow the spread of the virus, American citizens have started to stock up on groceries, avoid groups whenever possible, and stay inside. The restaurant industry is already feeling the effects. Over the past month or so since the coronavirus entered Washington state, Douglas' business has declined by as much as 90 percent, according to the Seattle Times. Douglas attributed the decline to Amazon and other major companies downtown issuing work-from-home policies.
Overall, reservations made through the online platform Resy were reportedly down 20 percent across the U.S. on Wednesday evening when Wayson was let go, and even more in cities where the coronavirus has already taken hold, like Seattle and New York City.
"For the first time in my life I truly don't have a sense of what's going on," said Wayson, who was a waitress at Serious Pie and an employee of Douglas' for over a decade. "I no longer trust my instinct toward optimism. The disease itself almost seems secondary to this economic fallout."
In cities including Las Vegas and Los Angeles, chefs and business owners have made the decision to close up shop and let their staff go until things turn around. Others who are trying to hold on are worried about surviving in a world where people fear being around one another. Laurie Thomas, a San Francisco restaurateur and the executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, an organization that represents restaurants' interests in the Bay Area, said the effect was already clear in her city, too.
"I understand it, but the dictum to work from home and not go out has made my city, San Francisco, into a ghost town," Thomas told VICE.
Overall, the U.S. restaurant industry comprises roughly 10 percent of the U.S. workforce and makes up around 4 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, according to Aaron Adalja, an assistant professor of food and beverage management at Cornell University. "This has significant ramifications for the larger economy as well,” Adalja said.
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The situation will get worse before it gets better for an industry that often operates on tight budgets that make even a slight decrease in foot traffic cause for concern. In Manhattan's Chinatown, Jing Fong, the largest Chinese restaurant in the city, closed on Thursday as business all over the neighborhood declined. This week, Jersey City instituted a 10 p.m. curfew and will require restaurants that can hold 25 people or more to jot down the name of every person who comes through the door—to keep track of anybody entering who may later be found to be sick. In Las Vegas, high-end dining establishments were shutting their doors, as were popular buffet spots.
Nowhere has this been more of an issue than in Seattle, where the city has become one of the nation's epicenters of epidemic. By the time she was laid off, Wayson had worked for Douglas in various forms for 15 years. Wayson holds no grudge toward Douglas, who she said had been a generous employer during her decade-plus of service. And Douglas hopes to hire them all back when this is over. But none of that makes the current situation feel much less chaotic.
As of Sunday, Wayson said she would no longer be insured, and she would have to look into filing for temporary insurance like COBRA as well as unemployment—two firsts for her.
Restaurant employees won't be the only ones to suffer from the industry's fallout. There are also suppliers who provide ingredients, and companies that build software for tabs. Landlords might not get paid either, and electric and gas bills could go ignored.
Thomas, the executive director of the GGRA, is trying to think of ways for restaurants to survive through this unprecedented moment. "What I've said would be great is if the tech companies here could give per diems to their employees to dine out locally, of course to the degree that they're not at risk," she said.
"It's something," she added. "Just something could help a lot."
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