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Last Call: Vermont Bars, Restaurants In Survival Mode After Governor's Order To Close

A bunch of people in a bar.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
VPR File
Patrons of The Killarney pub in Ludlow, Vt. enjoy a last beer together before the governor's closure order went into effect at 2 p.m. Tuesday. Restaurant and bar owners are worried whether they'll be able to open back up in the future.

Gov. Phil Scott ordered all restaurants in Vermont to shut down except for take-out and delivery by Tuesday afternoon and until at least April 6. But many restaurants owners are wondering if they’ll still have a business to reopen when the order lifts.

Revenue losses in the coming weeks could turn the statewide temporary restaurant closures announced on March 16 into permanent ones if the state and federal government don’t supply emergency aid, according to some restaurant owners.

A last beer and goodbyes at The Killarney

Last call was at 2 p.m. on Tuesday – St. Patrick’s Day. A few people came out before then to The Killarney pub at the base of Okemo Mountain in Ludlow, and they were celebrating: Green lights were strung across the bar, Irish music was blaring, and the four leaf clovers scripted into the pint of every Guinness were perfect.

Mark Verespy has owned this family pub for 15 years and, yeah, he understands why the governor didn’t want the bars open.

“Lousy timing, but I guess understandable if they’re trying to control large gatherings,” he said. “This is definitely a place that would be a large gathering on St. Patrick’s Day.”

A building with Celtic design and a stone chimney.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Normally, The Killarney pub would be packed for St. Patrick's Day, so owner Verespy understands why Gov. Phil Scott ordered the closure of bars and restaurants by 2 p.m. Tuesday to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Scott issued his order Monday evening, and so Verespy was on the phone all Tuesday morning, talking to his distributors, cutting down on the trash service, and trying to figure out how he will survive.

“My biggest concern is that they’re forcing me to close my business, and I haven’t heard anybody tell me that I don’t have to continue to pay taxes, continue to pay my electric, continue to pay my landlord, or my mortgage, my insurance,” Verespy said. “You know, all of these bills, I spent my whole morning on the phone with people who I have auto-pays with, concerned that these payments will continue to come out, and I’ve got nothing going in.”

As for The Killarney’s patrons, they’re sad about losing – at least temporarily – their social spot.  

Mark Redmond lives nearby and he said he comes by often, to eat dinner, drink a few beers, and meet up with his friends.

A man in a kilt and a green shirt with the word "home" on it.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Mark Redmond, who is Scottish, but celebrating St. Patrick's Day all the same at The Killarney pub in Ludlow.

“Everybody’s kind of depressed right now, because this is closing down, and this is kind of like our – where we all gather,” he said. “It’s like the meeting point for everybody. You know it’s going to be shut down for like three weeks. And it’s like, where are we going to meet?”

Isa O’Brien teaches snowboarding at Okemo, and she’s already feeling the impact of the coronavirus on her life. Okemo shut down early over the weekend, and O’Brien’s out of work.

But she has friends in Europe, and she understands why so much is changing before our eyes.

“They’re trying to control the situation, which I respect that,” O’Brien said. “Like, I’m not mad at the mountain, like Vail, for closing the mountain, or anything like that, or any of the other mountains that are closing, because it’s honestly, like an issue that I felt like some people are not taking seriously enough. But, it needs to be dealt with, because it is serious. You can believe it’s not serious, but it is.”

In the meantime, The Killarney will offer take-out food while the pub and restaurant is closed. The owner said they’ve already scheduled a special coronavirus St. Patrick’s Day for the 17th of whatever month they open back up. He said they’ll bring in an Irish band, put in an extra line of Guinness, and celebrate.

In central Vermont, a call for aid
vpr-news-restaurants-closing-20200318.mp3

Doug Doenges spent his Tuesday morning chatting with the regulars at Soup-N-Greens, the Barre restaurant he and his wife have owned for 35 years.

Doenges said he didn’t see the governor’s order coming, though in hindsight he said it seems like the closures were inevitable, given the spread of COVID-19 in Vermont.

“I think I had my head in the sand,” he said.

soups-n-greens-barre-vpr-hirschfeld-20200317_-_copy.jpg
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Doug Doenges employs 37 people at his Barre restaurant, Soup-N-Greens. Now, he's worried about what will happen to them during the statewide closure of restaurants mandated this week to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Soup-N-Greens is the kind of place you can still get a plate of eggs and your choice of meat for $5.50. It's the kind of place where the owner and his staff know most of their diners by name.  

“And 95% of my trade are local people that are here every day,” Doenges said. “This is their spot, and I don’t know what they’re going to do.”

Doenges isn’t sure what he’s going to do, either. He has business interruption insurance, but has no idea whether it covers a government-ordered closure. He said his primary concerns right now are the 37 employees who cook and serve the three meal services Soup -N-Greens offers every day, seven days a week.

“A lot of my servers, you know, they’re dependent on their tips. And they’re not going to have that, so this is a scary time for everyone,” Doenges said.  

He added he has “every intention of coming back” when the emergency closure order lifts, but is in uncharted waters right now.

A person holds a mug.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
"There are so many businesses that are going to need ways to be bailed out of this or we're just never going to be able to open our doors again," said Mark Frier, owner of three central Vermont restaurants.

“I was just talking with Fred over here and he said, ‘I don’t think anybody’s lived through this,’” Doenges said. “Maybe my grandparents’ generation through the Great Depression, but no one alive today has lived through this.”

Restaurant owners across Vermont are trying to find their footing on the slippery new normal.

At Tres Amigos, a Mexican restaurant in Stowe, co-owner Mark Frier was taking stock of about $3,000 worth of food in the kitchen Tuesday morning.

“So basically, we’re going through all our inventory and figuring out first of all, what we can freeze, and then whatever we can’t save, we’re offering up to our employees to just basically come in and do some grocery shopping,” he said.

Frier co-owns three restaurants in central Vermont. He said his mind is mostly occupied right now with the 150 or so employees he’ll have to lay off.  

“We’re worried that staff are going to have difficulty with making rent, getting kicked out of their places, utilities,” Frier said. “You know, we’re going to do everything we can as business owners, but we just don’t have the cash to sustain a payroll. Some employees are going to have to end up on unemployment.”

He said he’s also worried about making sure they have a job to come back to when restaurants are eventually allowed to reopen: Restaurants like his have enormous fixed costs that aren’t going to disappear during the mandatory closure period, costs such as the mortgages he carries on the three buildings his restaurants operate out of.

“There are certain fixed costs that we have to try to carry over this time," Frier said. "We’ve already been in touch with the banks to tell them we’re going to try to figure out how to survive this, but we need your help navigating that a little bit."

And survival for many restaurant owners, Frier said, is going to require extraordinary interventions by the state and federal government.

“We’re going to have to start treating this like it is a true natural disaster, and I think this could be worse than [Tropical Storm] Irene to the communities of Vermont," he said. “There are so many businesses that are going to need ways to be bailed out of this, or we’re just never going to be able to open our doors again."

A sign for Piecasso advertising delivery and pickup.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Peter Frier, the owner of three central Vermont restaurants including Piecasso, said local businesses will need stimulus to survive the mandatory closures announced this week in response to COVID-19.

Amy Spears is with the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, which is the state affiliate of the National Restaurant Association. She isn’t sure how many restaurants Vermont has.

“But I do know that there are over 32,000 jobs in the tourism sector in the state of Vermont, and that equates to 10% of Vermont’s workforce, which is a significant number for sure,” Spears said.

She said it’s difficult to overstate the economic disruption that the tourism industry is dealing with right now, adding that the Vermont Chamber of Commerce is seeking emergency aid measures from lawmakers in Montpelier and Washington, D.C..

In the meantime, restaurant owners like John Cummings, at Park Row Café in Waterbury, are trying to get creative. He said he’s transitioning to a takeout and delivery service.

“We’re going to try,” Cummings said. “In this business, I guess you can never really say you’re going to do something and have it pan out the way you hope. But you just kind of do things on the fly and hope they work out for you.”

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