FAIRMONT – Tuesday Brown has worked as a server at McAteer’s – a small, locally owned restaurant along Locust Avenue – for 11 years. During that span, she’s likely taken her fair share of phone calls about daily specials, take-out orders, and just how the restaurant was doing on a given day.
So when she answered the phone line towards the end of her shift on Friday afternoon, she was more than willing to discuss the state of affairs at her place of work since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States has spiked in the past week. On Tuesday, Gov. Jim Justice announced he was formally directing all restaurants and bars in West Virginia to limit service to carry out, drive-thru, and delivery operations only.
“It’s drastically affected our business. It’s a day-to-day thing as far as we’ll be able to stay open. We’ll make it through this, but we might have to close it down for a while just because of sales. He’s been here too long, but I’m feeling for other restaurants that are newer to the area,” Brown said.
“I know, no matter what, we’ll weather this storm and get through it, and the customers that have come in the last few days have been so generous – it makes me emotional. Just throwing extra money our way, they know it hurts us.”
The blowback on local restaurants, particularly ones that thrive on dine-in customers, is expected to be felt particularly hard both nationwide and statewide in West Virginia as local owners often don’t have the money available to sustain a business while taking losses, and often operate differently than bigger, wealthier chain restaurants owned by large corporations.
For McAteer’s, owner Tim McAteer estimates at least two-thirds of his business has died off for the foreseeable future, and Brown said on Friday that compared to a normal day under normal conditions, the restaurant had done about 85 percent less business with just 30 minutes until closing time.
“It’s just really dry. With us being open in the last few days, we’re paying more out keeping lights on and stuff. They’re doing it for us, so we can at least have a little bit of money. An average, normal day, compared to what I did today – we’re making 15 percent of what we’d normally make,” Brown said.
“We’re down two-thirds at least – we’re very slow. And I think other restaurants are the same. Also we’ve been notified by our supplier that we’re having difficulty getting supplies in. This could be over tomorrow and we’d all agree it’d be a good thing – but it’s not going to be,” McAteer said.
As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rises by the thousands each day on a path of exponential growth – confirmed national cases jumped 13,759 on Thursday to 16,638 as of 3 p.m. EST on Friday. Health experts predict this could be a crisis that doesn’t reach its peak until anywhere from 1 ½ months- to a year from now, depending on how long and how aggressively social distancing and quarantine measures are put in place. And the length and aggressiveness of such actions will have a large impact on how high the U.S. death toll climbs.
That’s tough news for many to swallow, but it’s even tougher for those like Brown, whose income is based on businesses operating as usual.
“It gives me a little bit of anxiety, or pause – it makes me, I’ll certainly be cautious in the future, it makes me want to save every penny. I can already see the trickle down effect, and I’m not buying what I’d normally buy. I’ll be at the gas station and think, do I really need that pop? Do I need that Dunkin’ Donuts,” Brown said.
“But I don’t want to be afraid, and I’m trying to stay calm – I know Tim is going to take care of us no matter what. He’s that type of guy, and he always has been. We may be closed awhile, but we’ll open back up. We’ll get through.”
These times also bring to mind concerns for Brown and McAteer that the government – whether it be at the municipal, state, or federal level – isn’t taking the situation seriously enough seriousness, or not acting quickly enough. They echoed sentiments that it’s more necessary now than ever that the government take swift action.
“It’s highly important [they do something]. I’m just taking it day by day, but I live paycheck to paycheck basically. I’m an optimist, and I know I’ll make it, but I certainly – they have to, to a degree. I don’t know how they think they can shut down everything and not help,” Brown said.
“It’s critical. I think, with the hospital closure in Fairmont and the pandemic, we want the government to become involved, and we want them to help us. We help them, and hopefully they’ll help us,” McAteer said.
“With the run of events we have going on around here, we want to stay in business, and we hope they want us to as well – small businesses provide a large percentage of tax revenue and jobs on the market. That’s why it’s critical they try to help us out as much as I can.”
While the economic impacts are already hitting hard and show no sign of slowing, those at McAteer’s are comforted by the fact that the situation has revealed just how much communities like Fairmont can care about their local eateries. McAteer said they have received an overwhelming outpouring of support from around the city.
“I can not say enough, people are calling and checking on us, reassuring us, telling us they’ll be back – it’s just the community. It brings people together, you know,” Brown said.
“It’s wonderful, it’s priceless. We feel like we are part of the community, and the community is showing they’re a part of us too,” McAteer said.