‘Mass layoffs’ underway; restaurants seek bailout amid coronavirus shutdown

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill to furlough 410 of 450 workers statewide

Both the Ohio Restaurant Association and the National Restaurant Association on Wednesday unveiled bailout proposals they say will help an industry that employs one out of 10 Americans survive the coronavirus-related forced shutdown.

The state association said its proposals include low-interest loans, lease/rent holidays, tax relief, and, for restaurant workers, unemployment compensation “matching workers’ full salary, not two-thirds.”

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“It is critical to keep as many restaurant workers as possible participating in the economy,” ORA officials said.

Ohio’s restaurant-employment situation darkened Wednesday with a formal notice to state officials from Firebirds Wood Fired Grill that it will be “forced to undergo a mass layoff” of 410 of its 450 employees statewide. Firebirds operates five restaurants in the state, including locations in Austin Landing in Miami Twp. and in Mason. The temporary layoffs represent “across-the-board eliminations of hourly employees,” according to the notice Firebirds sent to the Ohio Department of Job & Family Services.

A spokesperson for Firebirds said the layoffs represent a “temporary furlough during the required closure of dine-in service for our Firebirds restaurants. Firebirds intends to recall displaced team members once the restrictions are lifted.”

A healthy restaurant sector will be essential to the nation’s recovery after the national emergency caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus is lifted, restaurant association officials said.

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“We are asking federal and state government leaders to support the industry immediately with financial support,” ORA officials said. “Each day matters and restaurants cannot survive the duration of the health crisis on their own. Many restaurants have already closed nationwide and in Ohio, and thousands of food-service workers have already been laid off. Many restaurants are in a cash flow crisis.”

In Ohio, restaurants and food-service operations employ 585,000 people. Nationwide, there are nearly 15.6 million employees in the restaurant industry.

According to the industry trade publication and web site Nation’s Restaurant News, the National Restaurant Association sent a proposal to federal officials Wednesday seeking to:

• Authorize the Department of Treasury to create a $145 billion Restaurant and Food-service Industry Recovery Fund;

• Assist in allowing businesses to defer mortgage, lease and loan obligations and to delay or forgo tax obligations;

• Allocate $100 billion in Federally-Backed Business Interruption Insurance.

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The Ohio Restaurant Association’s proposals also included relief from utilities payments and an easing of liquor regulations to allow more restaurants to be able to sell beer and wine to go. “Alcohol for takeout, curbside and delivery needs to be allowed immediately,” ORA officials said.

“We believe the restaurant industry will need full and complete support of the government and consideration for a bailout, similar to what we have seen in other critical industries,” ORA officials said. “We estimate total support for the industry north of $30 to $40 billion.”

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Dayton-area restaurant owners praised the proposals, but said the obstacles will be considerable and will worsen the longer the forced shutdown lasts.

Dan Young, who has served as chairman of the ORA and has been active in the national association, spent part of Wednesday morning on a conference call that included state officials and a representative of Gov. Mike DeWine’s office discussing the proposals.

“We know it isn’t all going to happen,” Young said of the proposals. “But if most of them happen, it will still help a lot of restaurants to be able to reopen when the time comes.”

Amy Haverstick, owner of Jay’s Restaurant, said the timing of the shutdown sabotaged her most profitable season, when events such as Hamvention and the University of Dayton commencement brought hundreds of diners through her doors.

The restaurant association proposals makes her “want to feel hopeful,” Haverstick said.

“But each day, it seems another event is cancelled months down the line, and I feel less and less confident that small restaurant owners will recover, unless they had money saved to start over, or want to get another loan and further their debt,” Haverstick said. “What is hard is that we now have no cash flow, but we still have expenses: insurance, taxes, last month’s food bills, utilities, trash, and others.”

Dan Apolito, co-owner of Archer’s Tavern locations in Kettering and Centerville and of Stone House Tavern in Waynesville, said employee retention measures are among the most important in the association proposals.

“The longer we remain closed, the more likely our employees are to find work in another field. We estimate 20% of our staff will not return if this lasts four weeks or more,” Apolito said. “Employees are currently unable to find work with other restaurants, but if they leave the industry completely, the pool of candidates will shrink drastically, and it will be even more difficult to find qualified employees than it already has been.”

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