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Hundreds Of Kansas City Restaurant Workers Are Laid Off As Business Owners Face Coronavirus Losses

Lynn Horsley
KCUR 89.3
The Ship, a bar and restaurant in Kansas City's West Bottoms, is closed because of the coronavirus. Co-owners Josh Mobley, left, and Bob Asher are catching up on deferred maintenance but worry about the employees they had to lay off.

Kansas City’s restaurant restrictions, forced by the coronavirus pandemic, left owners reeling Tuesday with the loss of their St. Patrick’s Day business, layoffs and big worries about the future.

“We just lost our busiest day of the year,” Westport business leader Bill Nigro lamented on St. Patrick’s Day, which usually brings large crowds to Westport’s bars and restaurants.

Nigro also lives in Westport and said he was looking out his window at streets that were all but empty.

“There are probably 25 food or beverage places here in the area,” he said. “It’s a lot of employees. A couple thousand employees. It’s hard to take a couple weeks pay out of their livelihood. These are serious times here right now.”

The worries stem from a new state of emergency directive related to the coronavirus pandemic, issued Monday by Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas. The new guidelines, in accordance with CDC guidance, disallow any gathering with more than 10 attendees, at least through April 1. That effectively meant the closure of any sit-down restaurant, with service only by drive-thru, pickup or delivery.

“We understand these drastic measures will have unprecedented impacts on our local businesses and working families and recognize this is one of the most challenging periods our city and nation have ever faced,” Lucas said.

Some area restaurant owners said they had already laid off dozens of employees. They said they could hang on for a few weeks without business but were worried about what will happen if the restrictions last more than a month.

Jasper Mirabile, owner of Jasper’s Kansas City Italian Restaurant in south Kansas City, said he had to let 42 servers, dishwashers and cashiers go.

“It was the hardest thing in the world to do last night,” he said. “Everybody is worried.”

Mirabile is still doing takeaway service but hoped the restrictions would be lifted in a few weeks. He said he completely understands the public health imperative and restaurants are willing to do their part. But he wished the federal and state governments had been better prepared.

“We don’t have any direction,” he said. “There should’ve been something in place for a disaster, without waiting for the government to argue about it.”

Restaurant owners were particularly upset that Kansas City’s casinos appeared to still be open and operating.

Both Missouri and Kansas on Tuesday ordered their casinos shut until March 30, but that meant they were able to operate for St. Patrick's day, one day longer than the restaurants.

Bob Asher, owner of The Ship in Kansas City’s West Bottoms, said his restaurant and lounge does very little carry-out business and is essentially closed.

“We laid everybody off yesterday, 22 employees. It’s just me and my partner,” he said Tuesday, adding that they were using this time to do a deep cleaning and deferred maintenance.

He said the business can hang on possibly for eight weeks without assistance, but he’s worried about the staff. He said there are some crowd-sourcing fund-raising efforts, but the real help will have to come from governments. He hoped for some type of relief allowing people to defer rent, mortgage and lease payments for a month or two. He said some employees will also need food and utility assistance.

“It’s just a blood bath,” he said. “The only comfort is that all of us in the city are in this together.”

Dan McCall, owner of District Pour House in Waldo and the Classic Cup on the Country Club Plaza, said his restaurants rely on in-person business and he has had to lay off more than 40 employees, or 90 percent of his workforce.

He said he held a meeting to help his employees sign up for unemployment insurance. He advised people to sign up quickly before a backlog builds.

“If anyone needs to sign up, the sooner the better,” he said.

Many Kansas City restaurants were ramping up their carryout and delivery options.

Danielle Lehman, creator and host of the Open Belly podcast, spent the last few days building an online database, Curbside KC, where restaurants can list their delivery services and diners can see their options.

"There are over 600 restaurants in Kansas City," Lehman said. "I just keep waiting for the submissions to slow down because I keep thinking there cannot be this many restaurants in Kansas City. I am doing my best to keep up as quickly as possible, but it's truly been overwhelming with how many folks have come across it and want to update their listing."

And it's not just restaurants.

"Just today we added a listing of all breweries, wineries, distilleries and liquor stores who are now offering curbside pickup as well," Lehman said on Tuesday. "So you can actually call your favorite local brewery, place an order over the phone and they will bring it out to your car so you can enjoy your favorite beers at home."

The Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association has about 700 members. Executive Director Bill Teel acknowledged Tuesday that this is a tough situation, with no easy answers.

“There’s no magic button you can push to fix everything,” he said. “Every restaurant has its own circumstance.”

Teel said he was talking Tuesday afternoon with the city manager of Kansas City about what help the city might be able to provide but he wasn’t sure what that might be.

He said his best advice would be for owners to be nimble. “I would try to keep my people employed,” he said. “And push the carryout businesses as best as I could, and evaluate every day.”

Lynn Horsley is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.

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