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Lake County restaurants lobby state for coronavirus relief, warn of widespread closures
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Lake County restaurants lobby state for coronavirus relief, warn of widespread closures

Lake County restaurants lobby state for coronavirus relief, warns of widespread closures

General manager Nick Papamihalakis mixes drinks in the bar area at Provecho Latin Provisions in Crown Point.

Lake County restaurant owners are appealing to state and federal lawmakers for relief, warning of potential widespread closures could follow the temporary shutdowns of unknown duration meant to halt the spread of coronavirus.

"Closing restaurants and bars to the public was the necessary thing to do to help our community. Now, we need you to implement a plan of relief that will allow us to reopen to serve our community in the future. Carryout and delivery will not help restaurants, bars and breweries attain the razor-thin margins of profit needed to survive this crisis," Crown Point-based attorney Michael Massucci wrote in a letter to state lawmakers and members of Indiana's Congressional delegation. "As others in the industry have said in recent days, restaurants are pass-through businesses. We do not hold a million-dollar nest egg like big corporations, and the insurance industry will not cover our loss of business for this pandemic."

Massucci is doing pro bono work on behalf of a restaurant group that includes Provecho Latin Provisions, Ciao Bella Restaurant, Pappas Restaurant, New Oberpfalz Brewing, Cedar Lake Kitchen, Main Street Café, Jalapeno’s Restaurant, Grindhouse Café, Twelve Islands Restaurant, Vino Tini, Marcella’s Pizza,  Off Square Brewing, Danny Z’s Grub and Pub, House of Pizza, White Rhino, Dicky’s Dogs, Safe House, Overtstuffed Skillets and Sandwiches, Dante’s House of Pizza and SmartBelly Smoothie.

The restaurant owners worry that the temporary closures could end up becoming permanent in many cases.

"If nothing is done, we would be shocked if even half of the places you and your constituents love to eat, drink, and gather, will ever reopen. This means local owned businesses permanently closed, joblessness, and millions in tax revenue lost," Massucci wrote. "The trickle-down effect is that with no money, landlords will have empty buildings. Food purveyors and restaurant supply companies will have nowhere to sell their goods. If chefs have no one to cook for, we can’t pay them. Servers, bussers and front of the house staff have no gratuities and no income. We worry how our workers will survive, let alone contribute to the local economy."

Local restaurants fear independent and mom-and-pop eateries will be the hardest hit. They are concerned the failure of many local restaurants would leave Northwest Indiana sapped of its unique character and serviced more by big corporate chains.

"Customers have told us they don’t know where they will gather, dine and spend money if we close. While most of the big chains owned by publicly traded companies will be around when the dust settles, that corporate money doesn’t stay local and even if they are around in the future, it does nothing to help their workers, our neighbors, now. We, as an industry, are suffering together," Massucci wrote. "Customers and owners have pride in their local coffee shops, pubs, and restaurants. A community without these places of gathering is not a community at all. A beloved restaurant or brewery or pub closing is a black eye on the community. It leaves everyone feeling a bit empty. If half of them vanish, morale of those who work in the industry, and those who patronize it, will be lost."

The Lake County restaurants are calling for the elimination of payroll tax, a temporary abatement of sales tax, rent and loan abatements and zero-interest loans. They also called for emergency unemployment benefits for restaurant workers, complete forgiveness loans to keep employees on payroll and a moratorium on evictions for both businesses and their employees.

Grindhouse Cafe owner Gabriel Mauch said he was so nervous for his employees at a time when operations have been scaled back severely because customers are staying home that he was losing sleep over it.

"I wish that I could provide for the people that provide for me throughout the year," he said.

Rents and other bills are coming due to restaurants with far less money coming in from takeout- and carryout-only sales. Widespread permanent restaurant closures could put a lot of people out of work and have a ripple effect on the greater economy, Massucci said.

"Restaurant and hospitality workers in this country are equal in number to those in manufacturing. Imagine the outcry if the manufacturing industry was lost? This is the equivalent. Without on premises food and beverage tax in the future, local governments will be at an enormous loss for cash," he wrote. "If the hospitality industry fails, the local, state, and national economies will be devastated for years to come. There are over 3,000,000 hospitality workers in Indiana. That is 3,000,000 voters heading to the polls in November. We need YOUR help."

The Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association also appealed to the state for emergency relief for the restaurant industry, which employs an estimated 14% of Hoosiers. The statewide lobby is asking for 12-month interest-free deferral of all property taxes for hotels and restaurants, as well as of sales, food/beverage and innkeeper taxes. It also seeks for immediate unemployment benefits for displaced employees and for furloughed workers to be eligible to take medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act if quarantined after being stricken by the coronavirus.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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