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COVID-19 has potential to devastate restaurant industry

Employees face uncertain future as owners grapple with own uncertainties
March 19, 2020

Story Location:
Arena’s Five Points
17314 N Village Main Blvd
Lewes  Delaware  19958
United States

Less than three days into the mandated closure of restaurants across the state, Delaware Restaurant Association President and CEO Carrie Leishman didn’t mince words to describe the potential impact.

“It has the potential to devastate the restaurant industry, but specifically so in our beach communities,” said Leishman. “This is all happening so quickly. My fear is a lot of the small restaurants aren’t going to be able to survive.”

In response to growing COVID-19 concerns, Gov. John Carney issued an emergency order March 16 limiting all restaurants, taverns and bars to delivery and take out only. The order was announced in the middle of the afternoon, and went into effect at 8 p.m.

Arena’s co-owner Ramsey Schrader said there had been rumors the order was coming, but its abrupt nature is what came as a surprise. Arena’s had a plan because the writing was on the wall, but then there were only a few hours to implement it, he said.

Schrader said a significant number of staff members were laid off almost immediately, so they could begin to file for unemployment. Among seven restaurants, he said, the company normally employs 150 to 175 people; now, he said, there are probably 20 people on staff.

“We closed the restaurants in Newark and downtown Rehoboth Beach,” he said. “The others have one cook, one person out front to answer phones and a delivery driver, if needed.”

La Vida Hospitality Managing Partner Josh Grapski said 2020 had been going well because of an unseasonably warm fall and winter. Then, overnight, he said, the company had to let go of 200 people.

“There’s an eerie feeling of suspension in the business,” said Grapski.

At this point, Grapski said, the company is still wrapping its head around the situation. He said there are a lot of questions about how the company survives this.

“The [Centers for Disease Control] is recommending eight weeks, but there’s always the possibility it could go longer,” said Grapski, adding that 100 percent of online gift card sales through March 22 will go back to the employees.

Leishman said DRA will continue to work around the clock for the state’s restaurant employees. She said she’s been in constant contact with the governor’s office and the state’s federal delegation. 

“The first day was shock and a lot of tears,” she said. “Now, we’re in warrior mode.”

Leishman said the association is in the process of creating a relief fund. As of deadline, the fund details had not been finalized, but she said information will be on the Delaware Restaurant Association’s social media pages – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – as soon as it’s available.

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