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Restaurant workers leading the ranks of Md.’s growing jobless

A downtown Bethesda restaurant is closed as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's executive order took effect earlier this month. Restaurants are still allowed to have carryout, delivery and drive-thru services. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

A downtown Bethesda restaurant is closed as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order took effect earlier this month. Restaurants are still allowed to have carryout, delivery and
drive-thru services. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Restaurant workers constitute a large portion of the more than 42,300 Maryland residents who filed first-time unemployment claims this week in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Restaurant Association of Maryland said about 40,000 of the 206,000 residents who work in the industry are out of work at least temporarily. Association President and CEO Marshall Weston said Thursday many of his members anticipate a pending $2 trillion federal stimulus bill providing relief.

“We are hopeful … that the federal relief package and can provide restaurants with real relief and their employees with real relief, until this crisis is over,” Weston said.

As the number of COVID-19 cases in Maryland surged from three less than a month ago Gov. Larry Hogan closed all non-essential business Monday after banning gatherings of more than 10 people the week before in a bid to slow the spread of the illness that has killed more than 1,000 people in the U.S. and four in Maryland.

Maryland’s Health Department has confirmed 580 cases of the disease in the state, with every county reporting at least one confirmed case. Currently the biggest cluster of cases, 265 in total, have been detected in the Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Under the governor’s order, restaurants providing delivery or carryout service were allowed to stay open.  Weston praised that decision, saying it allowed some establishments to keep paying employees.

“Without that restaurants would have no way to generate revenue and everyone would’ve eventually been laid off or let go,” he said.

Even those who still have jobs face difficult times, according to the association. Of the restaurant employees who still have jobs 66% are working fewer hours.

Meanwhile, in the last few weeks Maryland restaurants have hemorrhaged $500 million in business as a result of the outbreak and measures taken to prevent more people from catching the potentially fatal coronavirus.

Atlas Restaurant Group, one of the largest restaurant firms in Baltimore, recently furloughed 1,000 employees as a result of the outbreak, a decision the group’s CEO Alex Smith has called “heartbreaking.”

In a bid to support those workers Atlas is donating 100% of all gift card purchases at its restaurants, which include venues like The Elk Room, Italian Disco and Ouzo Bay, to its out-of-work staff. Smith, and his brother and business partner Eric Smith, have also pledged match each purchase dollar for dollar.

So far those sales have totaled $17,500. Atlas has retained about 50 salaried employees, Smith said, who are critical to starting operations back up at their 15 restaurants in three states, with only one establishment currently providing carryout service.

“What we’re hoping for is when the governors in the various states say ‘lets go’ we can call up everybody and get rolling,” he said.

In a gesture to help struggling residents Atlas plans to donate produce from its Finksburg farm, which was supposed to start providing its restaurants fresh food next month, to the Maryland Food bank.

Even restaurants that remain open serving delivery or carry out, however, can’t operate that way indefinitely. Many restaurants are keeping the doors open just to make money to pay employees, Weston said, while they’re operating at a loss.

While some may view eating at restaurants as a luxury item, Weston contends they provide an essential service. By providing more options for access to food, he said, it takes some of the strain off of grocery stores taxed by residents stocking up on food.

Residents should follow the governor’s orders and avoid crowds and stay home as much as possible, Weston said. He also urged residents to order carryout or delivery and support local eateries.

“Restaurants are open and ready to serve and they could really use your support,” he said.

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