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Coronavirus Puts Ohio's Restaurant Industry on Its Heels

Restaurants across the state have had to temporarily close or lay off workers to stay afloat.
Restaurants across the state have had to temporarily close or lay off workers to stay afloat.

One sector of the Ohio economy that's taken a huge hit from COVID-19 is the restaurant industry. Gov. Mike DeWine's order last month to close dine-in food services has left many restaurants reeling and thousands of workers unemployed.

Grabbing a bite to eat or a coffee from the drive-thru is pretty normal. But in this age of stay-at-home orders and social distancing, this model of convenience is one of the few ways we can still access restaurants.

With only drive-thru, carry-out and delivery services, there’s just not enough business to keep all of state’s restaurant workers employed.

In the first three weeks of March, the National Restaurant Association estimates 100,000 Ohio food service workers lost their jobs.

"I started freaking out," said Sydney Cannon, over the phone from her house in Kent. Until recently, she worked as a server, host and cook at a restaurant in Peninsula.

Cannon was surprised how fast things happened after DeWine issued the order to ban dine-in service.

"So that’s how I found out. I was in the middle of Walmart just shopping. Then I found out I didn’t have a job anymore," she said.

Her restaurant is still doing takeout but had to cut a staff of 15 down to just three.

"I've been trying to stay as positive as possible, despite how hard it is. I’ve been having random panic attacks and anxiety attacks, being scared about money and rent," she said.

Restaurants forced to close

It’s not just workers feeling the squeeze; the National Restaurant Association estimates nearly 30% of the state's restaurants have temporarily closed.

Sweet Mary's Bakery in Akron made the decision to shut down earlier than many restaurants across the state. 

"I kind of saw the writing on the wall," said bakery owner Mary Hospodarsky.

Social distancing wasn't an option for her bakery. 

"We just have a very small kitchen, and it’s almost impossible to have more than two people in there without running into each other."

Some restaurants can function with a bare-bones staff, but her bakery makes everything from scratch and needs all hands on deck.

"If one of us gets sick, everyone is going to get sick," she said.

She decided closing temporarily and shoring up the business's finances was the best option.

"I could have just gone to the store and bought a whole bunch of ingredients and taken a bunch of orders that I’d have to then cancel and refund, and then have a whole bunch of perishable stuff on hand. So I decided to just kind of do my best to control my own outcome," she said.

John Barker, Ohio Restaurant Association President and CEO, thinks the governor made the right move in shutting down dine-in service, but said it's been hitting the state's 22,000 restaurants hard.

"Can you imagine if there were no restaurants open, what that would be like? We're very concerned about what that would mean here in Ohio and across America," Barker said. 

A spike in pandemic sales

While the spread of COVID-19 has led many restaurants across Ohio to close or lay off workers, some are booming.

"I had to hire more people," said Edwins CEO Brian Chrostowski.

The Cleveland restaurant has seen a surge in business. Chrostowski said they're often sold out of their menu before the restaurant even opens.

"I understand there’s a pandemic. I understand things are going on. We have not felt the pinch,” he said.

The restaurant turned its fine dining model on its head by quickly shifting to takeout and delivery.

"I pulled a grill out in front of the restaurant. You know we're grilling ribeye, lamb chops, steaks, filet, chicken, ribs. And that’s bringing in a whole other income level," Chrostowski said. 

Part of the problem for some restaurants is being able to have enough supplies to keep going.

Chrostowski said some food distributors have started switching to prioritizing grocery stores instead of restaurants.

"I bought 1,000 pounds of flour. I bought 500 pounds of sugar from my mill. And I think they’re all dried up now," he said.

What's next? 

For an entire workforce in Ohio, cash is what’s in danger of drying up now and recently expanded unemployment insurance is the best option to try and stem the tide.

"I've tried applying, but my first appeal got denied," Cannon said. "I'm worried I applied too soon because some of my other co-workers have already gotten unemployment checks or benefits."

With next month's rent weighing on her mind, she said she may try to find a job in a sector that's actually hiring: grocery stores.

"I'm kind of anxious about that because I really did want to avoid people to try and not get sick, but I don't see any other option but to get another job,” she said.

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