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To save their family business, restaurant owners ask people to buy meals for New York City health care workers

NYC EMS stretched thin battling coronavirus

As New York City has become the new epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, the city that never sleeps is adjusting to a strange new normal: a combination of eerie quiet on the streets and frantic emergency activity in the hospitals. The pandemic is overwhelming medical facilities and shuttering businesses like stores and restaurants for the foreseeable future. While health care workers are tirelessly battling coronavirus, many other workers have lost their jobs because of it. 

Restaurant owner Luca Di Pietro is one of the city's small business owners trying to stay afloat. Di Pietro had five restaurants around New York City, but in just one week, he had to downgrade to operating just one of his establishments. Most painfully, he says, he had to lay off about 90 "wonderful employees."

But as he fights to keep his last remaining location open, he's come up with a plan to help keep some of his employees working — and keep health care professionals fed at the same time.

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Luca Di Pietro, seen here with his wife Kate and two children, had to close four of his five New York City restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, he's found a way to keep his employees working – and keep health care professionals fed. Di Pietro Family

Under the city's lockdown rules, his restaurant, Tarallucci E Vino, which is in the Upper West Side neighborhood of Manhattan, can only do take-out and delivery orders these days, and it wasn't enough to make ends meet.

After Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the restrictions, Di Pietro was trying to figure out a way to keep things going when a friend provided a great idea. 

"Two days after the mayor's announcement, my wife received a message from her friend, Adair Roberts, who was writing from her home in Toronto," Di Pietro wrote on his website. "She wanted to find a way to help my family's restaurants and New York City healthcare workers on the frontlines of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic."

Roberts ordered 40 dinners from Tarallucci e Vino, which the restaurant delivered to NYU Langone hospital. "Adair's idea planted the seed for Feed the Frontlines NYC," Di Pietro said. 

Feed the Frontlines NYC is an initiative Di Pietro and his family started to encourage others to buy meals for first responders from New York City restaurants. As of Tuesday morning, 2,231 meals have been purchased through the Feed the Frontlines NYC website and $388,800 has been raised.

In an email to CBS News, Di Pietro and his daughter, Isabella Di Pietro, said they were able to rehire people within the first few days of starting this effort. To meet the demand of preparing and delivering meals to 14 hospitals and one elderly care home, "We have brought back 27 people and counting," Isabella told CBS News.

"When all this started, I was just trying to keep the lights on and I was thinking hard about what to do in this time of crisis," Di Pietro said in the email. "The easiest thing to do would have been to give up but we didn't give up." 

But instead, they found a way to stay open — and spread joy. 

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Over 2,200 meals for health care workers have been purchased so far through Feed the Frontlines NYC. Di Pietro has enlisted other restaurants to help deliver meals to more hospitals.  Feed the Frontlines NYC

"Every time we make a delivery, the hospital staff are so happy and grateful. I feel like Santa Claus," Di Pietro told CBS News. "I had a nurse manager tell me the other day that he has been very worried about how tired and overworked his staff is caring for [COVID-19] patients. Also how hard it is for them to find time to take off all their protective gear, go outside or order delivery to get a good meal." 

With Feed the Frontlines NYC, health care workers can enjoy a delicious meal donated by someone who cares about them. To choose where to send the donations, the Di Pietros started reaching out to the directors of emergency services to see if they had a need for food.

Now, they've enlisted restaurants in other boroughs, like Mesa Coyoacan in Brooklyn, to help make and deliver donated meals to hospitals outside of Manhattan, including Mount Sinai Queens and Elmhurst Hospital, Isabella said. 

She added that this effort has inspired sister organizations in Toronto, Boston, and Marin County, California.

"At this rate, we have enough money to provide 8,200 more meals and since we are delivering on average 950 per day, that means we have enough money to take us through April 8,"she said, "but the hospitals are telling us they expect to be treating people overwhelmed by the coronavirus for a lot longer than that." She encouraged people to keep purchasing meals to help both local businesses and health care workers.

"I think people really want to do something to help and they see that health care workers really need our support now, and if they can do that while supporting small restaurant businesses it is a win-win," she said. 

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Right now, Feed the Frontlines NYC has enough money to deliver an average of 950 meals a day until April 8 – and they're hoping more donations come in, so they can continue delivering past that date.  Feed the Frontlines NYC
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