Restaurants across America are scrambling to respond to fast-moving developments as the coronavirus spreads.
In New York State, bars and restaurants learned Thursday that they would have to cut the number of customers they serve by half starting Friday, to provide more room between tables, under an order from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Tom Douglas, one of Seattle’s most prolific restaurateurs, announced Wednesday that he would close 12 of his 13 restaurants for at least two months after the virus had wiped out up to 90 percent of his traffic.
According to figures from Resy, a national reservation platform for high-end restaurants, business on Wednesday night was down by 20 percent across the United States from a year ago, by 30 percent in New York City and by as much as 60 percent in Seattle. New York’s cancellation rate was 45 percent higher than normal.
“We are in crisis mode,” said Rocky Cirino, managing director of Altamarea Group, which has 10 restaurants, five in New York and the others in New Jersey, Washington, Dubai and Istanbul. “Drastic layoffs may be inevitable. Restaurants are a voluntary gathering place for meetings, for celebrations, for general revelry, for shared sustenance. None of those things will be happening.”
Even in cities like Atlanta, where the number of reported coronavirus cases is relatively low, the pandemic has restaurant owners struggling to keep up with canceled reservations and public fears.
“Like everyone, we are getting prepared for the very worst,” said Steven Satterfield, the chef and an owner of Miller Union, which is formulating a plan to reduce the number of tables to create more space around them in what is becoming known as “social distancing,” and to bring takeout food out to customers’ cars.
Across the country, restaurants are stepping up efforts to streamline operations, designing menu items that can be more easily delivered and doubling down on cleaning, all with an eye on revenues that are shrinking faster than ice cream in July.
“Every few hours, someone walks into the restaurant and says, ‘Did you hear this closed?’ ” said Mark Canlis, an owner of Canlis, a well-regarded Seattle fine-dining restaurant where business was down by half last week compared with last year at this time, and has continued to fall.
No restaurant community has felt the crisis more acutely so far than Seattle’s. Washington State has the country’s highest number of reported coronavirus cases and deaths, concentrated largely in the Seattle area.
“I feel like we’ve been one headline away from closing down,” Mr. Canlis said.
To fight back, he said the restaurant would reinvent itself starting Monday. Instead of multicourse dinners, Canlis will serve bagels from an outdoor stand at breakfast and hamburgers for lunch. The hamburgers will be available for drive-through pickup. In the evening, the restaurant will offer home delivery of prepared meals.
In New York and other cities, Chinese restaurants are suffering disproportionately, and restaurant operators say they face race-based fear. “Because we’re Malaysian and it’s not, like, blatantly Chinese, that kind of saved our butts a little bit,” said Moonlynn Tsai, an owner of Kopitiam on the Lower East Side, not far from New York’s Chinatown.
“It’s so sad,” she said. “These are the restaurants that have been there for decades.”
Most unnerving, many restaurant owners and chefs interviewed Thursday said, is the speed with which the downturn came and the uncertainty over when it might end.
“With the volatility in the stock market, extreme germophobia and basically no one traveling, we have to hunker down and prepare for an 80 percent decline in business,” said Alex Stupak, the chef and an owner of the Empellón restaurants in New York.
Just a day before Governor Cuomo ordered all venues that seat 500 people or fewer to operate at half capacity, Mayor Bill de Blasio urged New Yorkers to continue to eat at restaurants, and emphasized that the virus isn’t transmitted through food and drinks.
“It’s complicated messaging,” said Mitchell Davis, the chief strategy officer of the James Beard Foundation, which announced Thursday that it was postponing its annual suite of spring culinary awards events in New York and Chicago until the summer. The organization has also canceled some upcoming events at the James Beard House in Manhattan, and is working on a set of health and safety protocols to distribute to restaurants.
“The biggest challenge we feel is how to be supportive of the industry, which is facing very real challenges, but be responsible when we are saying to people, ‘Go eat at restaurants,’ ” he said.
Without any clear guidelines and guest counts sliding each day, restaurants both big and small are trying to do what they can. Many are sending customers newsletters suggesting delivery or takeout options and emails about sanitation measures. Buffets are being replaced with à la carte items; line cooks are using more utensils and gloved hands to finish dishes; and communal silverware containers are being shelved. Booths and tables are being thoroughly wiped down between guests.
At Automatic Seafood and Oysters in Alabama, one of the few states that hasn’t had a verified coronavirus case, walk-in traffic has slowed, although reservations have not. But the staff is trying to prepare for what’s coming, and do what they can to protect public health.
“We are wiping down the telephones, the computer keyboards, the bathroom door handles — anything staff would touch in the back we are now very O.C.D. about,” said Suzanne Humphries, who owns the Birmingham restaurant with her husband, the chef Adam Evans. “We’re thinking of our guests, of course, but thinking of what changes we can do to protect everyone internally.”
That might even mean taking the temperature of every staff member before a shift starts. “It’s scary to think about, but we have to think outside the box,” Mr. Evans said.
Many hope the removal of tables and bar stools in the name of social distancing will make dining out an attractive option despite the pandemic.
At Plumed Horse, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Saratoga, Calif., that is a favorite among the Silicon Valley executives at Apple and Google, half the tables have been removed to allow at least six feet between them. The restaurant now has only 20 tables, said Joshua Weeks, a co-owner. When corporations began banning travel last week, he saw 1,100 cancellations in 72 hours. That number has leveled off, he said.
There is also the question of how much and what to tell customers. Some restaurants are sending email blasts, like one from Bocca di Bacco in New York that assured diners that it is sanitizing its three restaurants frequently, and urging both customers and employees who feel ill to stay home.
Melany Robinson, owner of the Sprouthouse public relations agency, had fielded so many panicked calls from many of the 55 hospitality clients she represents that she put together a template outlining sanitation and cleanliness standards and sick policies for them to send out.
“People were asking me what to say when the elderly customer calls up and says we want to go out to dinner tonight but we have some questions,” she said.
Fewer customers also means less work, and restaurants are having to cut hours and lay people off.
On Thursday in Juneau, Alaska, Beau Schooler, the chef and owner of In Bocca Al Lupo was processing the news that several major cruise companies would suspend operations for the next two months.
Alaska’s capital city, population 32,000, isn’t accessible by roads, and the economy depends on cruise ships. On a busy day at the docks, 20,000 tourists might arrive. Like business owners in many small towns along the cruise route in Alaska’s panhandle, Mr. Schooler depends on the summer rush to float the winter season. It allows him to keep his staff year-round and to stay open for locals in the wintertime.
Major companies like Darden Restaurants, which operates chains including the Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse, have announced they would offer up to seven paid sick days to hourly workers, but smaller restaurants can’t necessarily afford to.
Natalie Freihon, the managing partner of Silkstone Hospitality, reported a 40 percent drop in business from last year at the Fat Radish in New York’s Chinatown and a 30 percent drop in dinner business at the Orchard Townhouse in Chelsea. She is paying sick leave to workers, but has had to negotiate with landlords at both restaurants to defer April rent and pay in weekly installments to help her cash flow. She has also negotiated with her loan brokers to buy some time.
“We really need people to spend money,” she said. “Even if they just go on our websites and buy gift cards. Any revenue will help us during this time.”
The chef Hugh Acheson, who has restaurants in Atlanta and Athens, Ga., said he is worried about meeting payroll for the next two weeks. Even if business picks up, the damage could be long-lasting. “Who knows when we’ll be back to full throttle? And full throttle in this business is low at best,” he said. “We don’t have the cushion other businesses do.”
“This feels like the beginning of a real, real long wait for a hurricane,” she said. “We’re just not going to lose power. When we get into stuff like this, I call it entrepreneurial terror.”
Reporting was contributed by Amelia Nierenberg, Tejal Rao, Brett Anderson and Julia O’Malley.