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'We're completely lost': coronavirus hits NY restaurants

New York City's renowned restaurant and nightlife industries — global destinations and trendsetters for generations — awoke Monday to a devastating new world, finding themselves all but shut down in an open-ended battle against a microscopic threat.

[NEW YORK] New York City's renowned restaurant and nightlife industries — global destinations and trendsetters for generations — awoke Monday to a devastating new world, finding themselves all but shut down in an open-ended battle against a microscopic threat.

From storied steakhouses to humble corner saloons, owners, waiters, chefs and bartenders arrived for work on Monday as if for a funeral, hours after Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered them to close by Tuesday morning.

"We're completely lost," said Odalys Rivera, pouring coffee at a new taqueria, Cena, which opened in Brooklyn's Windsor Terrace just last year and is the if-we-can-make-it-here dream of Rivera's brother and her cousin, the owners.

The shutdown promises to affect all strata of the industry, from the owners and their celebrity chefs to the waiters and waitresses, bar-backs and busboys, who effectively are facing layoffs and may be unable to pay their rent.

About 154,400 people work in the city's bars, restaurants, cafes and food trucks, earning US$4.7 billion in wages a year, according to a 2019 city study. The city's comptroller, Scott Stringer, estimated on Monday that restaurant sales would decline by 80 per cent during the shutdown, a figure that will cripple some businesses.

"We have never experienced something like this," said Daniel Boulud, the chef and restaurateur who owns Daniel. "Everybody is on temporary leave and we hope to bring them back as soon as the green light will come, but we have no idea when."

Under the mayor's order, restaurants would be allowed to serve takeout meals or deliveries, but the bars could face a complete loss. Never has the future appeared so uncertain: The coronavirus will almost surely do what neither a catastrophic storm nor terrorist attacks could, wiping out many of the places New Yorkers have turned to for comfort and company.

"Totally an out-of-body experience," said Pepe Zwaryczuk, a bartender of 46 years at McSorley's Old Ale House in the East Village, the venerable watering hole. "My feeling is we're going to be closed for a while. We've been told two weeks, and that's already telling me it's a month, which means it'll be closer to two months."

Others had an even grimmer outlook. Many bars and restaurants with daunting rents exist on a margin as thin as a paring knife and may never return from March 16, 2020.

"The problem with modeling this is that there's no sense of what the time is going to be," said Andrew Carmellini, the chef-owner of the Dutch, Locanda Verde and the owner or co-owner of 12 other restaurants. "There's the time when people are going to come out of self-quarantine, and then there's the time of economic recovery. It's not that in one day, restaurants are going to be full again and people are spending money."

Historically, restaurants and bars have been celebrated for reopening after catastrophes and have been treated as barometers of the city's recovery. But in the fight against the virus, they find themselves treated like pariahs and spreaders of disease.

"For those of us that were here for 9/11, once everyone started to come out of the fog, you wanted to socialize," Mr Carmellini said. "You wanted to go get drunk, you wanted to get a burger, you wanted to see your friends to feel safe and comfortable."

"This," he said, "is the opposite of that."

For many of city's leading chefs, opening a successful restaurant in Manhattan was the fulfillment of a dream. Seeing it all go dark overnight seemed to many of them like an existential threat.

"This crisis is the equivalent of a war," said Eric Ripert, a chef and co-owner of Le Bernadin. "In a war, you never know when the world is going to end. You never know what's going to happen. You see everything that you have created being destroyed."

In Harlem, at the restaurant FieldTrip, just nine months old, the threat of going out of business was even more pressing.

"We just started getting into our flow," said JJ Johnson, the restaurant's chef and founder. "You might have money in the bank for a month? For, like, shortfalls? But not for a major gunshot to the head."

For workers, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck, the mayor's order threw their livelihoods into doubt overnight.

Jake Murphy, 27, an actor and a server who was laid off from Perry St, one of the chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's properties, walked home from that job on Monday morning with an armload of produce from the kitchen and 20 hours' minimum wage pay, but none of the tips he usually relies on.

"I don't know what the future holds," Mr Murphy said. "There's no timeline for anything. How do you budget your savings when you don't know when this will end?"

In Harlem, Alysha Navarro, 30, a single mother and waitress at Melba's on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, lives paycheck to paycheck.

"This is my career — this is not my side job," she said. "If I only have experience in restaurants, how do I branch out?"

Across the East River in Queens, Quy Tran, a 55-year-old waiter and delivery man for a Vietnamese restaurant in Jackson Heights, said he had two or three weeks of cash in the bank. "I feel nervous, scared," he said, "not about the sickness but about money."

And in a restaurant on Columbus Avenue, as the owners sat around a table trying to figure out how to convert to takeout and delivery, a dishwasher swept the floor nearby. He said he still owed US$5,000 to the person who helped him cross the border from Mexico last year.

"I'm not scared to come into work," the dishwasher said. "I need the job."

At Bar Tabac, a longtime bistro in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, Roman Kologov, a waiter, set up water glasses on empty tables as if in a trance. "Basically serve whoever wants to still eat," he said when asked about the last day before closing. "Would you want to eat out?"

It's a question that could linger beyond the shutdown. Once the crisis passes, chefs and restaurateurs do not expect business to immediately return. After what might be months of time away, diners might be initially wary of public gatherings or might still be out of the habit of dining out.

"Everyone is going to have to make an effort," Mr Ripert, the co-owner of Le Bernadin, said. "We are going to see some drastic changes in the restaurant industry. Whatever was yesterday will be difficult to recreate."