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‘Our team is our family’
Local food and beverage community finds common ground during pandemic

SAVANNAH-AREA restaurants — many already experiencing the disastrous economic effects of necessary COVID-19 measures — came together last week to petition Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to initiate state-level relief for their industry.

“In Savannah and across the state, service industry workers are some of the most vulnerable. And few businesses are more vulnerable than ours. Many of our workers rely on tips and none of us have the option to work from home. Savannah is home to many acclaimed bars and restaurants which are crucial to the ongoing success of the city,” the petition says.

“Within days, we may all be required to close. We will not survive without decisive action from your administration,” says the petition, signed by a virtual who’s-who of key local names in the food/bev industry.

Among other things, they ask for:

• Support immediate unemployment benefits for all hourly and salaried workers furloughed during this crisis

• Eliminate state payroll tax for the period of impact.

• Suspend sales tax payments for bars and restaurants until crisis has passed.

• Call for rent and loan abatement for workers impacted by restaurant and bar closures.

At least one measure, declaring an economic injury loan disaster so restaurateurs can apply for U.S. Small Business Association disaster loan assistance, has been accomplished.

Off the record, many local restaurant owners are resigned to huge layoffs even as they almost desperately attempt to keep as many employees on payroll as possible.

Some, such as Lone Wolf Lounge owner Thomas Worley, are trying to be proactive by using the downtime to do buildout and maintenance, with current staff.

“A safe bet is there will be at least one place that doesn’t make it out alive unless action is taken locally and at the state level,” Worley told us last week. “We are doing what we can from our surplus to help our most valuable asset, the people that work with us.”

As a bar that doesn’t serve food, Lone Wolf is required to be closed, but actually closed down proactively days prior to the mandate from Mayor Van Johnson.

“As a neighborhood bar we had to consider the impact [of staying open]. We don’t want to exacerbate the issue,” Worley says.

Of the overall relief effort, Worley says state-level relief is most important now.

“The state must absolutely act first because the effect is felt faster,” he says.

One of the signers of the petition, Green Truck Pub owner Joshua Yates, tells Connect, “I can’t speak for everyone’s businesses. We’ve been established for almost a decade and have a better chance than a lot of them, but we will definitely see some not be able to pull through.”

As this is written Green Truck has moved to takeout/curbside only. Yates has pushed Gov. Kemp to follow a similar measure to one enacted in Atlanta, enabling takeout alcohol orders as well.

“In the wake of the Coronavirus, Savannah restaurants are laying off staff at a rate never-before-seen. We have already seen many restaurants suspend their operations entirely,” Yates writes.

“Some, like mine, are doing everything they can to adapt to the new realities of social distancing in order to keep going and to provide as much as work as possible. Our team is our family. They deserve the opportunity to earn a living. And we will need your help,” he writes.

“We are asking you to temporarily allow restaurants with alcohol licenses to sell beer and wine as part of a to-go or delivery. It may not be the magic bullet to solve our problems, but it is a small step that could help a great number of hard-working people to keep their jobs,” says Yates.

Husk Savannah’s ownership, The Neighborhood Dining Group, closed proactively early on – March 17 – and guaranteed that “staff and management will receive compensation through March 29. Additionally, NDG will continue health insurance benefits through April 30.”

“One thing, for sure, is that none of us want to close. We’re in the hospitality business... let’s all work together and shut this down so we can get past this and get back open and get back to business. If we don’t, if we delay, literally this could go on for the rest of the year, and that would be catastrophic,” said David Howard, NDG President.

“Servers will come to work knowing that it’s a life-threatening situation, but they’re desperate because they know rent is coming and they’ve got to get money, so they put themselves in a life-threatening decision. I don’t think they should have to make that decision.”