Governor Larry Hogan issued a stay-at-home order for Maryland on Monday, March 30. The decision, which Hogan described as “one of the last tools in our arsenal” toward fighting coronavirus (COVID-19), has further restricted the trade of local businesses.
Food service businesses have been mandated to switch to take-out only services. David Forster, one of the two Hopkins alumni who run PekoPeko in Charles Village, explained in an email to The News-Letter that this change, combined with a lower population of Hopkins students in Baltimore, has drastically reduced the restaurant’s revenue.
“Very quickly revenues dropped by as much as 85%. I don’t want to speak for other businesses, but I imagine everyone is hurting just as bad,” he wrote.
Carma Halterman of Carma’s Cafe similarly informed The News-Letter that the lack of students and take-out only orders has had a massive impact on the restaurant.
“We are down about 80% of what my volume normally is this time of year. It’s pretty devastating,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter.
Forster explained the new restrictions will severely hinder business and knew it would be difficult to maintain a sufficient revenue. However, he quickly adapted and decided to try a new strategy through an innovative program called Feed it Forward, roughly based on a New York City program called Feed the Frontlines.
Feed it Forward collects donations on the PekoPeko website PekoPekoRamen.com and uses the contributions to retain staff, who prepare meals for MedStar Union Memorial Hospital staff and the Franciscan Center Soup Kitchen in Old Gaucher.
“In wake of the crisis, community members have been searching for ways to support local businesses. This program goes further — it supports PekoPeko, a local business and its staff, but also supports those on the frontlines of this pandemic. It's a program that aligns community interests beautifully. Everybody wins,” Forster wrote.
Carma’s Cafe has been involved with a similar program that provides meals to the frontline hospital and medical personnel. However, it’s uncertain whether providing this service will be enough to keep the business open.
“We have been supported by a non-profit that's providing some meals to hospital workers, and they are being funded through different philanthropies and Bank of America, so we are getting some payment for that. But for right now that is just about it,” Halterman wrote.
Halterman further explained that some workers are worried about exposure to the virus. She ensured that she assigned those who have voiced these concerns to back-of-the-kitchen roles.
“I am taking most of the public exposure that I possibly can because I'm not overly concerned about it. We are absolutely vigilant about washing our hands, everybody knows how to wash their hands, and we are doing it constantly, we are using gloves and washing before and after,” she wrote.
Forster expressed frustration with the difference between instructions given to white-collar workers and those who work in the food industry during the pandemic.
“It's been insulting to me that those white-collar jobs are being told to teleconference and work from home, but we in the food industry need to show up to work. While wage earners in the service industry need their paychecks, it's unethical to be putting them at risk by effectively forcing them to take public transportation and engage with delivery drivers. Contactless or not, being in public puts one at higher risk,” he wrote.
Baltimore community member Sarah Engeman, who previously worked as a bartender for various businesses in the area, has found herself out of work due to the new restrictions in place to combat the spread of COVID-19. She has been following the governor’s order to stay at home, especially because she identifies as being high-risk for COVID-19, only leaving the house to buy essentials and walk her dog.
Her attempts to redeem unemployment compensation have been extremely difficult. Engeman explained that she does not have access to a computer and the official unemployment website is difficult to maneuver on her cell phone.
“The website runs me in circles. I can not get through to unemployment at all,” she wrote.
Fernando J. Delgado, a music promoter and event planner who works with several Baltimore restaurants and breweries, has also faced hardship with the recent shutdowns of and restrictions on local businesses. With most of his events cancelled or postponed at least through May, Delgado’s has almost completely lost his main source of income.
“The number of hours hasn’t really changed much, but my income has certainly been greatly reduced. I’m focusing on management services and planning out further into the year, so that if we hopefully get back to normal in June or July, I can hit the ground running,” Delgado wrote in an email to The News-Letter.
In terms of the future, local restaurant and business owners expressed a wide spectrum of expectations. On the one hand, Forster is hopeful PekoPeko will be able to survive during the quarantine. However, he is fully aware that the longer these restrictions are placed on businesses, the harder it will be to stay open in the future.
Halterman is worried about Carma’s Cafe staying open in the future.
“It's not just about the quarantine. Last summer Charles Village was completely ripped up because of the construction going on in the neighborhood, my business was down 40-50% last summer because there was no parking, nobody wanted to eat outside because of the dust and noise,” she wrote.
Halterman had hoped that business would pick up again in the spring, as it is usually the busiest time of year, but this year that has obviously not been the case for any local businesses.
In the midst of the frustrations and panic surrounding coronavirus, Halterman shared an uplifting story about community support.
“I had someone that graduated from Hopkins ten years ago send me a Facebook message and buy a gift certificate, and they're in Canada. It's not like they're gonna use it. But there's been an awful lot of outreach of support but if this lasts very long I think it'll completely change the face of the neighborhood,” she wrote.