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Restaurants, Service Workers Feel Effect Of Virus Shutdown

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Millie's ice cream shop in the Strip District is closed, with a sign that reads "closed in the hopes of keeping everyone healthy and safe."

Governor Wolf’s order to suspend for two weeks all dine-in service at bars and restaurants inthe stateto slow the spread of the new coronavirus is already taking its toll on service workers. Local restaurateurs report decreased hours and layoffs because of the rule, which limits restaurants to take-out service.

Through Sunday, Scott Kramer and Steve Zumoff employed nearly 100 people between their Tiki Lounge bar, on the South Side, and the two locations of their Doublewide Grill, on the South Side and in Irwin. Now the bar and the Irwin Doublewide are closed entirely, and the South Side restaurant is down to a skeleton crew doing take-out only. The rest of the workers have been laid off.

“We told them to go on unemployment. We can’t pay ’em,” said Zumoff on Monday.

The restaurant closures and service-industry layoffs – which have hit several other states as well-- come after what was already a rough period for many bars and restaurants. Zumoff, for instance, says business at his places on the St. Patrick’s Day weekend just past was less than half the usual for that reliable late-winter boost.

The disruption to the local economy will be significant. According to figures from the National Restaurant Association, the region is home to some 5,000 bars and restaurants employing about 80,000 people. And in the same way that most bars and restaurants operate on slim profit margins, many of the sector’s employees are low-paid and live paycheck to paycheck. Many lack health insurance.

Workers left unemployed by the virus might be eligible for unemployment benefits through the state Department of Labor & Industry.

Braden Walter said business at the Oakland outlet of his Redhawk Coffee had been suffering too, especially since the University of Pittsburgh moved the rest of its classes this semester online. Following the governor’s order Sunday, he closed both the Oakland and Downtown locations, and laid off his nine full- and part-time employees. Walter said he understands the governor’s order, though.

“We knew that this is just the right move and we’re trying to take it very seriously even though it’s really detrimental to our income, and our employees most importantly,” he said.

Not all establishments have resorted to layoffs just yet. Lawrenceville restaurant B52 remains open for takeout with its regular hours and its regular menu, and owner Omar Abuhejleh said Monday he had distributed the reduced workload among staffers who are reporting for work. (A few of B52’s staff of 20 didn’t feel comfortable working because of the virus, he said.)

“We’ve just kind of pared everything down to spread out the hours among the crew, and just try to give people as many hours as we can at this point,” he said. He said he does not anticipate any layoffs.

Abuhejleh said B52’s regular customers have been supportive, buying takeout and gift certificates. Like other restaurants, he said he is working on new offerings, including family-style meals to complement the usual single-serving menu items.

“I’m just trying to do my best to just take this day by day and see what we can do to make it through,” he said.

Abuhejleh also owns Allegro Hearth Bakery, in Squirrel Hill, where retail demand is “super-busy” but wholesaling to restaurants has dropped significantly because of the restaurant closures.

At Sprezzatura restaurant, in Millvale, owner Jen Saffon said most of her employees are contractors, and much of her business is catering. (She has closed her cafe.) Saffron too is looking for new ways to do business, including offering curbside pickup for customers who order remotely; selling family-sized meals, like half-pans of lasagna; and even repurposing the gallons of fava-bean soup she made for an event that was canceled this past weekend. Saffron froze the soup and is now selling it by the quart.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: