First Virus Cases Confirmed in Virginia Capital as Eateries Struggle

A take-out order waits for pickup Wednesday at GWARbar, a Richmond, Va., restaurant named after the infamous metal band that calls the city home. (CNS Photo/Brad Kutner)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Dusty George peeks out the window of GWARbar in the downtown area of Virginia’s capital city. The general manager of the restaurant named after the infamous, Richmond-based metal band, his establishment is among the thousands of local bars and restaurants around the country facing new challenges as the coronavirus spreads.

“We’re hoping people will get sick of eating at home,” he said Wednesday as a Ronnie James Dio song blared in the background with fake severed heads lining the ceiling, chairs stacked to block access to the usually packed seating area and a to-go order waiting on the bar.

Once one of the most violent cities in the country, Richmond has made a cultural comeback in the last decade as a low-income alternative city in the South. Part of that renaissance is linked to its food scene which, thanks to a city-wide tax, has excluded most corporate establishments.

And while these small businesses have attracted young folks to the once struggling city, Wednesday morning came with the first local positive cases of coronavirus: four in total with two under the age of 40 and two under the age of 30 — the target demographic for much of the food-service industry.

Statewide, the total number of Virginia cases hit 77 Wednesday.

A sign on the front door of GWARbar in Richmond, Va., reads “Eat Local” on Wednesday, as the restaurant struggles to survive during the coronavirus outbreak. (CNS Photo/Brad Kutner)

To further complicate operations, Governor Ralph Northam issued an order Tuesday banning all Virginians from gatherings of 10 or more and encouraged restaurants to switch to carry out or delivery options instead of dine-in seating.

At a press conference Wednesday morning, he encouraged those in the service industry who had faced layoffs to apply for unemployment benefits.

“We know this will be a hardship for many businesses, and we are assisting workers affected by closures,” the Democratic governor said. “We can and will get through this difficult time. But we must work together to do so.”

Among those who have already applied for benefits is Allison Wick. While the 32-year-old worked brunch over the weekend at a local hot spot called Perly’s Restaurant & Delicatessen, she said she was shocked at the number of people who came out for bagels and Bloody Marys. She and her co-workers went through eight boxes of surgical gloves and almost as many cans of bleach wipes during the busy midmorning shift.

“I started to get sick from the chemicals,” she said, noting Perly’s closed its doors to the public and laid her off Monday morning. “As terrible as it is to not have a job indefinitely, it felt really crazy and irresponsible being open.”

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney was similarly concerned about the impact the virus has had on local restaurants. While the city’s health and success are on the line, the 38-year-old is often seen mingling with constituents at local bars and food spots.

In a Wednesday morning press briefing, he called service industry workers the “backbone of this economy” and pleaded with the federal government to move quickly with financial aid.

“Not only do we need emergency unemployment for these people, we need emergency payments for these businesses to meet mortgages,” he said in the lobby of City Hall.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announces the first positive cases of coronavirus in the city limits Wednesday. (CNS Photo/Brad Kutner)

Stoney has since moved to stop the collection of the city food tax and offer forgiveness for late payments, but he said he’s also doing his part: he ordered take out from a local restaurant last night.

As for the safety of ordering food, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there isn’t evidence to suggest the virus spreads through food, but human-to-human and surface contact is a major issue. To that end, ordering food with as little human contact as possible and immediately disposing of the packaging is recommended.

The mounting crisis is set to depress one of the nation’s largest employment sector as hospitality employees stay home to practice social distancing.

The National Restaurant Association sent a letter to President Donald Trump on Wednesday urging him to offer support for their members, saying the industry could face a $225 billion loss and leave 5 million to 7 million employees out of work.

“We urge you to take critical steps to support America’s restaurant industry and the 15.6 million workers we employ,” Executive Vice President Sean Kennedy wrote, suggesting fixes such as the creation of a $145 billion restaurant and foodservice industry recovery fund and community development block grants.

Virginia’s tourism board said restaurants statewide employ about 300,000 people and account for about $7.7 billion in revenue, the largest portion of the state’s tourism industry. While the extent of how much the virus known as COVID-19 will impact restaurants is yet to be seen, Caroline Logan, director of communications for the Virginia Tourism Corporation, said her group was in constant contact with those who could be impacted.

“While this situation is immensely difficult, we remain hopeful about the future when the situation becomes more stable and fear abates,” she said in an email.

Back in Richmond, George, the GWARbar manager who has already cut staff down to three people, just hopes people start ordering take out again sooner than later.

“We told [former employees] to file for unemployment as soon as they can,” he said. “Hopefully this works or we’re all going to end up doing it.”

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