By Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger
BRANDON — Faced with the loss of their standard food deliveries from New York City as a result of COVID-19, the owners of Li’s Chinese decided to cook the ingredients they did have and give the meals away for free Tuesday before closing their restaurant altogether.
“Lunch is on us today!” the Brandon restaurant announced to its Facebook followers, drawing a steady stream of customers who collected containers of chicken fried rice, egg rolls, crab rangoon, and sweet and sour soup.
Co-owner Tiffany Li, who was working in the kitchen with her husband and two sons, chatted with customers who stopped at the register to thank her, but she refused payment when it was offered.
“We’re just taking it one day at a time,” Li said. She’s not thinking about the long-term future.
The restaurant is one of many that closed Tuesday after Vermont Gov. Phil Scott on Monday ordered restaurants and bars to limit their activity to takeout and delivery. Scott issued that directive — effective 2 p.m. Tuesday.
Restaurants are a $1.1 billion business in Vermont, according to the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, which studied their economic impact in 2018. The Chamber counted more than 1,400 eating establishments in the state that year, with 29,600 jobs – about 9% of the state’s employment.
The Chamber also separated full-service restaurants from limited-service, or takeout. It said each dollar spent in restaurants with table service contributes $1.66 to the state economy. Each dollar spent in limited-service restaurants $1.45.
Scott’s decision to close bars and restaurants to dine-in service did not come as a surprise to restaurant owners, who had been watching fast-changing policy limit more and more economic activity in Vermont and elsewhere. Governors in more than a dozen states, including California, Washington, North Carolina, Illinois, Florida and Ohio, had already closed bars and restaurants to dine-in service, as did areas such as New York City and Los Angeles.
Erin Sigrist, president of Vermont Retail & Grocers Association, which has restaurants and delis among its members, said she knows many restaurants have closed down for now, rather than trying to continue with takeout or deliveries.
“We have members in fairly rural areas saying, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to make it long term,’” she said Tuesday.
Line Barral, who co-owns Gourmet Provence and Café Provence in Brandon, closed her restaurant Tuesday but started offering limited meal pickup at her nearby café, with some delivery available. On Tuesday, St. Patrick’s Day, the store was selling corned beef and cabbage.
“At 2 p.m., the chairs will go away,” she said of the café’s seating area.
Benjamin Adler, the co-owner of the Burlington-based Skinny Pancake chain, said Tuesday that home deliveries might help him keep on some of his staff as he faces a large reduction in business.
“We have the ability to produce a huge amount of food, and we are immediately pivoting to try to sustain our staff to try and offer home meal replacement,” he said. “My expectation is that those will be delivered by our team to people’s homes.”
Many of the businesses that are scrambling to adapt have already laid off workers. Barral laid off her restaurant workers last week.
“All the staff from the restaurant has been told to file unemployment,” she said.
It’s likely thousands of others are suddenly out of work.
While some of the lost jobs might return when the economy recovers from the closures, there is concern that some are gone for good.
“If you’re on the margin, and then you can’t be open or you can’t serve, face it, that’s going to affect you dramatically,” said Tom Torti, president of the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce.
The downturn and closures could not have happened at a worse time for Vermont, Torti added. Spring usually marks an increase in meetings and events.
“The spring and summer season are, for Burlington, the time when businesses really make their budget for the year,” Torti said.
The same is true for many central Vermont towns including Rutland and Woodstock.
According to the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, about 5 millions of visitors spend nearly $500 million in the state over the summer, which supports almost 38,000 jobs.
Sarah Asch, Justin Trombly, Kevin O’Connor, and Aidan Quigley contributed reporting