LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
These days, lots of people are ordering for takeout or delivery. That's if your local restaurants aren't closed. Industry-wide, it's chaos. Revenue is down or gone. Restaurant workers aren't working. Here's NPR's Yuki Noguchi.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Just about every restaurant nationwide has been hit hard at once. That makes this disaster unique.
SEAN KENNEDY: The coronavirus epidemic - it's unchartered territory for us.
NOGUCHI: Sean Kennedy is a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association. Restaurants of all stripes are in varying states of collapse, and that industry is the country's second-largest private employer, with 15.6 million workers.
KENNEDY: It doesn't matter if you're a big chain or a small corner diner. You're seeing the impact immediately, and you're really questioning, how long do I need to be bracing myself for?
NOGUCHI: Melvin Rodrigue lived through Hurricane Katrina. It destroyed his home and shut down his famed restaurant Galatoire's in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
MELVIN RODRIGUE: I think Katrina is going to prove to be a cakewalk compared to this.
NOGUCHI: And it all went down with breathtaking speed. Last Sunday, Louisiana officials first raised the idea of a shutdown. Then things accelerated. By Monday, the mandated closure had moved up twice.
RODRIGUE: For a restaurant, you have to have certainty in order to operate. And those are three changes in one day, one 24-hour period.
NOGUCHI: Just like that, the economy seized up. Rodrigue is trying to adapt, turning his 115-year-old white-table restaurant into a takeout joint, using up fresh seafood that was supposed to go into iconic Creole specialties like shrimp remoulade and trout amandine.
Then there's his dwindling supply of cash. Insurance won't cover losses. There's rent, utilities. He feels an urgent obligation to carry on for the sake of his 160 workers, most of whom he had to lay off. In between all this, he's counseling waiters and sous chefs about how to stretch their budgets.
RODRIGUE: If you have the choice between buying a box of Hamburger Helper and going to the drive-through somewhere, you need to be as frugal as you possibly can for your own sake and your family's sake.
NOGUCHI: And so you can see how the cycle keeps repeating onto itself. Many restaurant owners are searching for ways to help their staff. Some are trying to sell gift cards and giving proceeds to employees. A new federal law passed this week granting workers at smaller businesses up to two weeks of paid leave. But the Restaurant Association's Kennedy says that would require restaurants to fund the leave, and most are already too cash-strapped. Reimbursement from the federal government, as well as any potential bailouts, might arrive too late.
KENNEDY: They simply aren't going to have the financial wherewithal to fund that paid sick leave mandate.
NOGUCHI: The collapse has a massive impact on workers and their families. Carolyn Stromberg Leasure is set to give birth next week in Charlottesville, Va. But her chef husband lost his job this past week, which means they have no health insurance. It's a terrifying prospect.
CAROLYN STROMBERG LEASURE: Really, I have a lot of anxiety. I have a lot of trouble sleeping.
NOGUCHI: Leasure says she's overwhelmed with the chaos. She's calling around to try to find insurance coverage. On top of that, she has health concerns about the birth itself. She decided to induce labor earlier, hoping to avoid overcrowded hospitals.
LEASURE: As a worker, like, losing your job a week before you're having a baby - you find out that you don't have insurance is a really big deal.
NOGUCHI: One that she hopes to try to resolve soon.
Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.
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