Carius: COVID-19 hits hard for restaurants, bars – Bloomington Pantagraph

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Larry Carius



St. Patrick’s Day 2020 will be etched into the minds of Bloomington-Normal restaurant and bar owners and employees for years, maybe a generation or more.

It was the first day of Gov. Pritzker’s order that all bars and restaurants be closed to the public for dine-in for two weeks, and bars and restaurants usually jam-packed with. St Patrick’s Day partiers were empty.

It also was a day servers and bartenders usually could rely on as one of biggest tipping days of the year. Now these same employees, in one short day, were very concerned about keeping their jobs.

And, it was the day that created instant cash flow crises for restaurant and bar owners.

According to the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council, McLean County has 374 restaurants and 8,536 restaurant employees. This includes restaurants and restaurant employee numbers for Bloomington and Normal.

How many restaurant employees have been or will be laid off as restaurant owners temporarily close their restaurants or struggle to stay open with a skeleton crew for pick-up, delivery and drive-through?

Some online estimates are 80% or higher of restaurant employee layoffs, depending how long the dine-in prohibition lasts.

The governor’s order later was extended to April 7 and, as I write this column, now to the end of this month.

When the governor initially issued his order, some local restaurant owners decided to close immediately thinking they could ride it out until March 30. Others began pivoting and changing their operations to pick-up and delivery.

The restaurants with a drive-through and a current delivery system seemed to fare better at first.

As the dine-in ban continued, many of the restaurant owners who had closed began to reopen with changes and new ideas, possibly including number of days open, fewer hours open, scaled-back menus, sales incentives, adding or expanding pick-up and delivery. One local Indian restaurant quickly installed a drive-through window.

Some updated their websites and/or Facebook pages to help keep customers current, and several added online ordering, which for many restaurants and customers has replaced the phone as the preferred way to order.

Of course, restaurant owners needed to communicate and make their customers aware of these changes, and this is where Facebook became even more of a major player in the Bloomington-Normal restaurant scene.

Most restaurant owners quickly increased their presence on Facebook, many posting two or three times a day.

I love watching all of the restaurant activity and customer comments on Facebook. If their favorite restaurant is closed, I see customers trying restaurants they may not be that familiar with and being pleasantly surprised.

At times, I see restaurants that I would not have expected posting they are sorry but they ran out of hamburgers or other foods the previous night. I, however, know others are struggling and having difficulty keeping their doors open

Overall, I am not sure how well B-N restaurants are adapting to the changed restaurant world. It appears some restaurants owners may be adapting better than others, as would be expected. Of course, the bars are closed unless enough food can be sold to stay open.

When COVID-19 is in our rearview mirror, I believe we all may be surprised, or maybe I should say disappointed, by how many B-N restaurants have permanently closed, especially if the dine-in ban lasts into the summer.

We all want our favorite restaurants to be open with our favorite employees when the dine-in ban is lifted. For this to have a chance of happening, we all need to support the restaurants and employees now. Don’t forget to tip well.

(Note: I am not being critical of Gov. Pritzker in this column since I agree with his dine-in ban. However, I wanted to point out the devastating effect COVID-19 is having and will continue to have on Bloomington-Normal restaurants, bars and employees.)

Carius, of Bloomington, is a former food program and plan review supervisor for the McLean County Health Department. His Facebook blog, Bloomington-Normal Restaurant Scene, has 24,000 followers.

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