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Durham owner to Gov. Cooper: Food, drink industry needs more aid

After ordering restaurants and bars across North Carolina today to shut down all but take-out service, Gov. Roy Cooper announced his plan to support the restaurant industry: easier access to unemployment benefits.

But a Durham bar owner has organized a drive to tell Cooper that the industry needs much more to survive efforts to contain COVID-19.

Lindsey Andrews, co-owner of Arcana bar in Durham, posted a letter online urging Cooper to provide more aid during the coronavirus closures.

As of early Tuesday evening, over 160 restaurant owners, bartenders, and other food service workers across the Triangle had signed on.

“We, as employees and owners, will lose significant income or be laid off,” the letter states. “We will not survive without immediate and decisive action from the government.”

The letter calls on Cooper to support unemployment benefits for all workers, eliminate payroll taxes and mandate rent, loan and utility cuts for businesses and employees harmed by the closures.

In a press conference today announcing the closures, Cooper discussed unemployment, promising that the state will remove barriers such as the one-week waiting periods to apply for benefits. North Carolina also won’t ask employers to fund benefits for layoffs related to coronavirus, he said.

But for many restaurant and bar owners, that isn’t enough, Andrews said.

“The unemployment issue was a big one, but that’s not going to pay people what they need when they’re losing so much,” she said. “We really need a moratorium on rent and loan payments.”

Andrews had to shut down Arcana completely. Unlike some restaurants, bars can’t offer take-out options.

“We’ve asked for a rent abatement from our landlord, but we’re hoping for a directive from higher up,” she said. “Worst-case scenario, this could go on for months.”

Chef Matt Kelly owns five popular Durham restaurants, including Vin Rouge, Mothers & Sons Trattoria, and the recently reopened Saint James Seafood. Tuesday, for the first time in his career, he was calling employees one-by-one to lay them off.

“I’ve never done it,” he said. “I’ve never laid one person off. But no one really has a choice.”

Kelly has been part of multiple efforts to advocate for relief from local, state, and federal authorities, he said. Eliminating payroll tax and starting rent abatements are some of the measures that could provide “immediate relief” for restaurants and their employees, he said.

Andrews said that her business’ needs will depend on how long closures last. If Arcana can’t open for more than a few weeks, she would need a “total freeze” on expenses to make it through.

But “we could go longer if we get the kind of aid we need,” she said.

Both Kelly and Andrews want to reopen after the COVID-19 crisis fades. Kelly worries most about Saint James Seafood, his newest restaurant that reopened only two months ago after it was badly damaged in last April’s gas explosion in downtown Durham.  

“We had to use all our capital on Saint James,” he said.

Both owners agreed that aid from the state could significantly improve prospects for many others in their shoes.

“I don’t know if there’s going to be any viability for anyone unless we get more serious relief,” Andrews said.

At top: There was no sign of customers walking or driving on a stretch of Ninth Street, usually a busy commercial center, Tuesday morning. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone

Cameron Beach

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