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The New Reality for Columbia Restaurants during the Coronavirus Crisis

All across the country, restaurant dining rooms normally filled with the jubilant energy of dine-in customers sit empty while the liquor bottles behind the bar go largely unpoured. With doors closed and little hope they reopen anytime soon, restaurant owners, who already operate on razor thin margins, have had no choice but to layoff the majority of their employees as they suddenly adapt to the dramatically scaled back business offerings of pickup and delivery only . This is all being done with hopes that they can stay financially fit enough that they can reopen their doors on the other side of this catastrophe.

Restaurants are part of the bedrock of local economies providing jobs to over 15 million workers in America. It's not just the front of house servers and chefs, but the busers, barbacks, line cooks, and dishwashers who are suddenly out of work given the sudden closure of much of our economy. The service industry is essential to our economy and provide jobs to some of the most vulnerable residents, including immigrants and those who have been formerly incarnated, as well as to artists, musicians, entrepreneurs and creators whose work enriches the cultural fabric of our community. Restaurants donate to our schools and provide a place to go to celebrate a milestone or let loose with family and friends. The employees are neighbors and friends, and help make places like Columbia MD special and unique. After all they have done to help us; now it is on us to help them.

Vince Culotta, co-owner of Cured / 18th and 21st, explained to me that his staff is his family. It was heartbreaking for the restaurant to have to layoff 70+ hourly employees 3 weeks ago, but they'd blow through their cash reserve in less than week if they continued to pay them. Instead, the barebone team remaining is learning to do business all over again with each day bringing new and unforeseen challenges. Culotta has never been busier and the community has been extraordinary, but the revenue being brought in is just a small fraction of their normal business. It is simply not sustainable in the long term to pay rent on a 10,000 square foot restaurant in the heart of downtown Columbia while generating the revenue of a glorified sandwich shop. Culotta assured me that Cured / 18th and 21 is going to be fine and they will make it through this crisis and be able to reopen their doors when all is said and done. The sad reality is that many other restaurants will not.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) enacted last week contains a number of provisions specific to restaurants, foodservice establishments and their employees that will help restaurant operators continue and provide unemployment benefits to employees who have been laid off. Likewise, the state of Maryland has established loan and grant programs of its own to help restaurant operators. The magnitude and speed in which these programs have been set up is nothing short of miraculous and will provide a much needed lifeline to restaurants and other small businesses. But as generous as these programs are, the money will only go so far and last for so long. Ultimately, it’s going to take our help, the local communities and customers, to support these businesses, so they can reopen on the other side of this disaster and bring back to work all those employees that they care so deeply about.

Yes, I know your Facebook feeds are full of so many amazing ways that you can support your community and the heroes in healthcare on the front line of the crisis. Lots of organizations have stepped up to organize ways for us to help those in our community who need support right now. But if you are interested in helping support our local businesses, here's some ways to do it:

  • First and foremost, please consider mixing things up by trying curbside and delivery from a local restaurant, especially those that are independently-owned and operated and don't have the cash of a national chain behind them. Support your favorite restaurant or try something new. This community google-sheet I started lists every restaurant in Howard County offering pick-up and delivery (hint: most of them are). If something is missing from the list, you can edit and add it; or just shot me an email and I will add it:

  • Know the facts about food safety and respiratory viruses like Covid-19. This comprehensive thoroughly-researched guide from Serious Eats answers every question and addresses every situation on eating and food as it relates to coronavirus. After reading through this, I feel comfortable bringing food from restaurants into our house, and have already done curbside pickup and delivery from several of my favorite downtown Columbia establishments.

  • Buy a gift card for future use if you don't want to get food now.

  • Donate to the Howard County General Hospital "Caring for our Caregivers" campaign. They are providing meals from local restaurants to the health-care heroes currently working in our hospital. The ultimate win-win.



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