Maria Sandoval, a manager at Cazuela’s Mexican Restaurant & Cantina, unlocked the front door of the restaurant and peered out after hearing a knock. Her 7-year-old son bounced on the booth behind her.
It’s the first Monday after spring break. Sandoval should be commanding a fleet of servers and cooks. Her son should be in school today. The booths should be full of hungry college students coming back to their favorite watering hole for margarita specials.
Instead, Sandoval mans the front register, taking carryout orders alone with limited kitchen staff. Her son runs across the empty restaurant floor, pulling a toy truck off the shelf. The booths sit vacant.
After an announcement from Gov. Mike DeWine that all dine-in restaurants must shut down indefinitely beginning Sunday night to prevent the spread of COVID-19, service workers and business owners across the state have been scrambling to develop a strategy to stay afloat. Only carryout and delivery services are allowed, leaving restaurants blindsided and their service staff out of work.
Establishments surrounding the university were already prepared to lose the usual boom that comes with the Spring Game and senior bar crawl, but the latest developments present a bigger hit than many are prepared to take.
Sandoval was at a loss for words.
“I feel — it’s a lot of emotions. Scared and everything,” she said.
In the chaos of the epidemic, Sandoval said she didn’t want to risk leaving her son with a sitter until she is sure they are safe and healthy. Instead, she brought him to work with her, which she knows poses its own risks. Still, she said she and the other managers are thinking of those who are worse off.
“We’re trying to help them as much as possible. Us — the restaurant — to our employees and to the students. We are very concerned about them,” Sandoval said. “I’m scared for them ’cause I’m a mom.”
To help its employees, Sandoval said Cazuela’s is offering them a free meal each day. As for the business itself, she said it is well equipped for carryout and deliveries. Cazuela’s already makes significant revenue through food delivery services such as DoorDash and Grubhub. She said the biggest concern is the loss in alcohol sales. Margaritas are a staple of the restaurant’s student appeal.
Other establishments are finding the adjustment even more difficult.
Mike Heslop, the owner of Kafe Kerouac, said he first heard about the governor’s order from his employees while he attended his child’s soccer game. Since then, he has had to let all of his employees go. He said he will try to run the coffee shop and bookstore on his own with limited hours, but there is no way it will be sustainable.
“If it’s gonna be a month, we can weather a month without making any money. If it’s gonna be six months, we absolutely can’t make six months,” Heslop said. “It’s the uncertainty, you know? That’s the hard part, right?”
As he dips into the restaurant’s small backup savings, Heslop said he has put plans for renovation — and his own salary — on hold. While he has encouraged his former employees to apply for unemployment benefits, he cannot.
Heslop said he may have to shutter the restaurant if carryout sales don’t provide enough revenue. He can only hope that landlords for local businesses like his are lenient, instead of sending out eviction notices.
The promise of low-interest loans for small businesses does little to assuage Heslop’s anxieties, he said. He is critical of the government’s response to the crisis.
“My gut feeling is it seems like an overreaction, but then I’m not an expert,” Heslop said. “And everyone seems to be over the moon about Mike DeWine lately and his reaction, so what does it matter what I think?”
Scott Ellsworth, owner of High Street bars Threes Above High and Fours On High, said he trusts in the experts, even if the decision will hurt his business. Ellsworth chose to close his locations Sunday morning, before the governor’s announcement.
“I’m a father. I have staff who I consider like my kids. These are kids who will work for me no matter what, whenever I need them to,” Ellsworth said. “I couldn’t put my head on my pillow consciously knowing I’m putting them in any kind of harm’s way. And that goes along with my customers and my regulars.”
While Fours ramps up its carryout services and begins delivering through delivery apps, Ellsworth said Threes will close down completely for the time being. In order to make up for lost business, he said he has also shifted focus to online sales of merchandise for his bars.
Even then, Ellsworth predicted his business will lose more than $250,000 by the end of the shutdown.
“You don’t plan to be shut down indefinitely, you know? No business school is teaching you how to react to what’s going on right now,” Ellsworth said. “So we kinda have to ad-lib and move on as you can.”
Improvisation and adaptation were common themes among those interviewed. In a rapidly developing crisis, business owners and service workers can do little more than hold on and hope for the best while planning for the worst.
“It’s been less than 24 hours since this happened,” Sandoval said. “We don’t know right now what are all the changes. The government can, from one second to the next, say ‘No carryout.’ So we’re working with the government right now — what they’re trying to do.”
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