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Calif. COVID-19 Restrictions Shut Down Indoor, Outdoor Restaurant Dining

NOEL KING, HOST:

California is going through its worst COVID surge since the start of the pandemic. Statewide, just 2% of ICU beds are available. Governor Gavin Newsom has put most Californians under stay-at-home orders to deal with the strain on the hospital system. Now, that includes a ban on in-person dining in restaurants, which surprised owners who thought they could survive with outdoor dining.

BROOKE WILLIAMSON: We had invested in multiple space heaters and outdoor covering. And that doesn't even dip into what we had spent on Plexiglas dividers between booths. And, you know, there was a significant investment.

KING: That's Brooke Williamson. She's the owner and chef at Playa Provisions in Los Angeles. And she says she's been losing money since the pandemic started.

WILLIAMSON: You know, I was looking at my books the other day, actually, my P&Ls reports from the entire year, the other day. And I actually just closed it immediately because I didn't want to see.

KING: Oh.

WILLIAMSON: But there was a lot of money lost. And we probably plummeted about 80%. And there were still bills that needed to be paid. There was still a full payroll that needed to happen. I mean, we probably lost a good $100,000 in that first month.

KING: Wow.

WILLIAMSON: And there wasn't a lot of money in the bank to lose. So it was sort of a matter of, like, picking and choosing which bills we were going to pay for a while. And I've been in the restaurant business for a long time. But this was unlike anything I'd ever experienced.

KING: Last March, you had four restaurants open. How many do you have open now?

WILLIAMSON: I have one restaurant currently.

KING: What happened to the other three? Did you shut them down all at once or one by one? How did you make that decision?

WILLIAMSON: It was sort of a domino effect. It was - it happened one by one. The fast casual restaurant - which, actually, one might think that a restaurant that serves pretty much only takeout and delivery would be the perfect business model. But...

KING: Yeah.

WILLIAMSON: ...A lot of our business was from surrounding neighborhood businesses. And we were also in a mall. It was an outdoor mall, but there was no longer foot traffic. So we really just didn't have the business anymore to make it make sense. Yeah, I mean, just the - I just don't know that I would even be able to handle more than one restaurant right now with all that it takes to ensure the safety and everything else involved in running a business right now. I really, honestly, don't know that I'd be able to handle more than Playa Provisions.

KING: That, as a pragmatic statement, makes complete sense. I'm wondering, what is the feeling that comes along with closing three businesses that you have built yourself? - which is no small feat, as you know.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, I mean, it's devastating. One of these restaurants is named after my son. We've been open for 12 years. That's a lifetime in the restaurant industry. But more so than the personal emotional devastation that kind of goes along with all of this is the devastation that I'm seeing from my employees, some of which have worked with me for - and my husband - for 15-plus years, people who are looking to us for answers and a timeline of how long this will last and when they might get their jobs back. And I have no answers.

KING: How many people did you have to lay off?

WILLIAMSON: I mean, it was collectively close to 100 people.

KING: OK, so a lot of jobs lost.

WILLIAMSON: A lot.

KING: A personal question for you, but a necessary one because you are representative of a lot of small business owners in the U.S., particularly people who were doing well before COVID - when you look at your financial future, what do you see?

WILLIAMSON: It's really an unknown. I really have no idea. It really depends on how many weeks this shutdown will continue for. But I really believe that there has to be some relief here. When you ask me about financial stress, I'm stressed every day. But it really is a matter of how long this goes on for. I'm OK right now. And I'm literally just taking every dollar that we're making right now and putting it toward paying my employees because I don't want to lose the few employees - key employees who have stuck with us through this whole thing. We're losing money right now. We're definitely not breaking even. We are losing money. And we have a little bit of money in the bank to do so for a few weeks. But beyond that, you know, it's pretty grim.

KING: Brooke Williamson, the chef owner of Playa Provisions in Los Angeles. Brooke, thank you so much for taking the time. We really appreciate it.

WILLIAMSON: My pleasure. Thank you so much. Thanks for listening. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.