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Coronavirus is hurting the restaurant business. Here's what they say you can do to help.

Bars, restaurants shut over coronavirus fears

For many Americans, restaurants are destinations for the most special of occasions: birthdays, promotions, anniversaries and engagements. Amid a growing spread of coronavirus infections, they're also poised to take one of the biggest economic hits.

This week a handful of states — including California, Florida and New York — ordered restaurants close their doors and offer takeout and delivery options only. On Wednesday, Union Square Hospitality Group, Danny Meyers' restaurant empire, announced it was laying off roughly 2,000 people, about 80% of its staff.

CBS News spoke to restaurant owners and servers at some of New York's best restaurants about what guests can do to help their favorite establishments.

Call your representatives

"First and foremost it would be great if people would call their members of Congress!" said Jordan Salcito, the director of wine special projects at Momofuku, David Chang's popular restaurant group. She's also the founder of Ramona, a canned spritz beverage.

Demanding that the restaurant industry is part of the upcoming federal stimulus package is the best way that people can make sure the establishments they love can weather the economic storm, Salcito said to CBS News. 

Salcito also recommended restaurant-goers ask their representatives to suspend wine tariffs.

"Wine purveyors are reeling from restaurant closures, especially the smallest importers who sell primarily or exclusively to restaurants," Salcito said.

After widespread closures were announced, some restaurants sent back wine that they no longer needed, while others are storing it without paying, Salcito said. To keep wine importers afloat, Salcito recommended doing away with the typical 25% tax on wine imports, a cost that would "cripple small importers."

Simon Kim, the owner of Michelin-starred Cote, a Korean steakhouse in Manhattan, offered a script for people to use when calling their representatives

"The world of restaurants is a unique one and in order to keep a lot of these mom and pop places around we need help," Kim said to CBS News on Wednesday. "Hundreds of thousands of people rely on the restaurant world for income and are facing bankruptcy, homelessness, and will be unable to feed their families." 

Order takeout … and don't forget wine

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The staff at Cote.  Cote

On Monday, Kim temporarily closed Cote, something he called an "incredibly difficult situation," but a move that would allow his hourly employees to collect government-funded unemployment benefits.

To continue bringing in some revenue, Kim started offering something his restaurant had never done before: delivery.

Many restaurants have gone that route, offering gourmet meals to otherwise social-distancing food lovers.

"If your local restaurant is going delivery or take-out, as best you can, try to spend money in those restaurants," said Kevin Garry, the owner and managing partner of Epicurean, the restaurant group behind L'Artusi, a buzzy Italian restaurant in downtown Manhattan.

Like Cote, L'Artusi had never done delivery before this week, and "when we turned it on, we had an amazingly positive response," Garry said. The business has been so good that L'Artusi has been able to offer their kitchen employees "close to a full schedule," said Garry.

In some states, guests can even include a bottle of wine in their takeout orders. In New York, the State Liquor Authority temporarily changed its rules earlier this week to allow restaurants to offer wine and liquor as part of their delivery options. 

At Cote, Victoria James, the restaurant's beverage director, has created wine packages with handwritten tasting notes, an opportunity she called "a new bonus in a dark time."

Tip as if you were eating out

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Sydney Werry, a Sommelier at Aldo Sohm. Sydney Werry

Even though you may not be actually going out, it's important to tip as if you were. For the skeleton staffs that restaurants are maintaining, tips are a huge source of revenue.

"If you're ordering take out, still tipping 20% is important because that helps the actual employees as well, not just the restaurant itself," said Sydney Werry, a Sommelier at Aldo Sohm, a wine bar in midtown Manhattan.

Donate to fundraisers for servers

With the exception of delivery, L'Artusi closed its doors to guests this Monday, laying off all 70 of its front of house staff so they'd be eligible for unemployment benefits. But Garry said many of his former staffers haven't been able to apply because the website keeps crashing.

"Once I heard that we got the idea to start a GoFundMe page," Garry said. "That seemed like the best way knowing that restaurants have a lot of loyal followers, a lot of regulars. People that celebrate their birthdays and anniversaries with us."

The fund was a success. In less than 24 hours, Garry's fundraiser has collected nearly $20,000 for both L'Artusi and his other restaurant, Anfora. Garry said all of the funds will go directly to his staff.

Many other restaurants have done the same, offering virtual tip jars and other ways for guests to offer restaurant workers support.

Another option is donating to the Restaurant Workers' Community Foundation, a new nonprofit created by restaurant workers. The group is collecting donations to "direct money to organizations leading on-the-ground efforts in the restaurant community" as well as "establish a relief fund for individual workers facing economic hardships or health crises as a direct result of COVID-19." The group will also be offering businesses "zero-interest loans" to help them reopen once coronavirus has passed.

Buy gift cards

Reopening a restaurant once it has closed is an expense that Garry estimated could cost "tens of thousands of dollars" between restocking the kitchen and restaffing.

"It's not as simple as unlocking the doors and turning the lights back on," Garry said.

That's why buying gift cards is something that can help restaurants survive. Those funds also provide immediate relief for the staff at restaurants who've seen their revenue diminish overnight.

"I cannot stress enough how helpful this is, and how we are so grateful for this support," Kim from Cote said.

When this is over, come back

Even with such a grim picture ahead, Garry said he's hopeful that business will rebound once they're able to welcome guests again.

"I'm a firm believer that the New York City restaurant community is going to come back out and pack places, spend a little more money on wine and tip well," Garry said. "That's my hope."

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