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Will these shuttered restaurants be able to reopen after pandemic?

A sector of the economy that is being hit especially hard amid the coronavirus pandemic is the restaurant industry. In normal times, Americans were spending roughly as much money on dining out as they were at grocery stores. With restaurants now closed, more than 3 millions jobs have been lost nationwide. Paul Solman reports on the impact on establishments in the Washington, D.C., metro area.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the many sectors of the economy that's getting hit especially hard is the restaurant industry.

    In normal times, Americans were spending roughly as much at restaurants each year as they were at grocery stores.

    Our economics correspondent Paul Solman looks at how this is affecting a few restaurants in the greater Washington, D.C., area.

    His report is part of regular series Making Sense.

  • Jon Williams:

    We let go of our — all of our hourly employees. That was a horrible — it was horrible. It was the hardest thing that I have had to do in my life.

  • Paul Solman:

    Jon Williams owns Whitlow's, a bar and grill in Arlington, Virginia, not far from the "NewsHour," that's been closed since mid-March.

  • Jon Williams:

    The hardest thing is letting all these people who busted their butts for you for years, and just being like, I got to let you go. I can't — I can't do this. I can't keep the train going forward with everybody on it. And that sucks.

  • Paul Solman:

    Williams, whose brother works at the "NewsHour," now serves only non-paying customers, his former employees.

  • Jon Williams:

    I ordered, like, eggs and milk and bread and stuff, just the basics, so they can — you know, so they can get by. And we will just distribute that out to everybody every week. I mean, it's something.

  • Paul Solman:

    The pandemic has closed restaurants here, there and everywhere. Since March 1, the industry, which employs 16 million Americans, about 10 percent of the work force, has axed three million jobs and counting.

    Most restaurants expect more layoffs this month.

    Kathryn McGee has been a bartender for 12 years. The mom of two lost her job at Whitlow's last month.

  • Kathryn McGee:

    I don't have a salary. I don't have — I can't get sick leave or vacation pay.

    We make all of our money off of cash tips. So it's a huge blow monetarily when you're told one day you just can't work. How do you pay for rent? How do you pay your bills? How do you pay for your car, if you have to use your car? How do you pay for your kids?

  • Paul Solman:

    For 22-year-old Briana Oyler, a Whitlow's server, her job wasn't the only thing she lost.

  • Briana Oyler:

    My family members were laid off as part of the pandemic. They worked for like a big company. And they're laying off a bunch of workers because it's slow.

    And so my whole family lost their health insurance also. That's probably the craziest part of all of this, is to lose your health insurance in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, where people, like, definitely need health insurance if things were to go wrong.

  • Paul Solman:

    The financial aid bill signed into law last Friday will offer some relief, $600 a week in federal unemployment to restaurant workers to supplement state benefits, for the restaurants themselves, small business loans, with forgiveness provisions.

  • Jon Williams:

    That's going to save our business, and it's going to save, I know, lots of other businesses.

    I mean, I didn't — I slept this weekend for the first time, because I was up all night all last week just trying to figure everything out.

    And on Friday, there was a glimmer of hope. Those loans are going to keep everybody going. And that's going to put food on everyone's table, including mine.

  • Paul Solman:

    How long can you stay out of business before you don't have a business?

  • Jon Williams:

    I don't know. I don't know how long I can.

  • Paul Solman:

    Andy Shallal owns seven Busboys and Poets restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area.

  • Andy Shallal:

    In the hospitality industry, very thin margins. And so you're basically skating by during the wintertime, and you're hoping that the spring will make up for the difference of what you lost during the winter.

    This is the worst time ever. I mean, it's no exaggeration that we may have 30 percent or up to 50 percent of restaurants that will not be able to come back.

  • Paul Solman:

    Busboys and Poets is still open for takeout, but Shallal's had to lay off 90 percent of his staff, some 500 people, including event specialist Brandy Jackson, who quickly applied for unemployment insurance, was sent the wrong forms, called to get the right ones.

  • Brandy Jackson:

    The first time, I was on hold for about four-and-a-half-hours before it got disconnected. I started over. The second time, I was on for about five-ish hours. I haven't had any luck getting through to this day. This is my fourth day calling.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, if you're not getting unemployment yet, obviously, and you can't even get on the roles yet, how are you going to survive?

  • Brandy Jackson:

    The good thing is, is that, at least for my rent in my building has been pushed back, and I did receive one last paycheck from Busboys.

    So, right now, that is all I have. And, I mean, if we could just be totally honest, that's not going to last me more than after this week, after groceries.

  • Paul Solman:

    Owner Shallal says he's waiting on details to determine if government aid will be enough to save his business.

  • Andy Shallal:

    You still have your rent. You still have your electricity. You still have your taxes. You still have all these other things that continue and don't stop.

    We pay yesterday's bills with today's revenue. And if today's revenue stops, that avalanche of payables is relentless. If we're talking four weeks, we're probably OK. If we're talking much more than that, all bets are off.

  • Paul Solman:

    David Guas closed Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Virginia this week, laying off all but four of his 23 employees.

    But the New Orleans native is still cooking. Guas teamed up with nonprofit Real Food for Kids to give away free healthy meals to neighborhood kids and others in need.

  • David Guas:

    We had one targeted school that's about five blocks away from us, Key Elementary. I have at least six or seven of my staff whose kids go to Key Elementary who are on their reduced meal programs and the free meal programs.

    So, I'm staring at who's going to be affected. I have got plenty of big pots from all my crawfish boil. So I set up all the propane tanks outside and started just cooking.

  • Paul Solman:

    Decorated takeout bags no longer used for orders now adorn Guas' windows. And this week, Shallal helped paint the windows of his shuttered restaurants.

  • Andy Shallal:

    The sidewalks are generally empty. But when people walk around, they feel like they're just kind of in a daze.

    And, sometimes, you need to have some joy, some interruption that is positive in your day as you're walking to see some beauty or some message that is inspiring.

  • Paul Solman:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is correspondent Paul Solman still reporting from home.

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