‘The COVID-19 Hangover’

Life after the pandemic for the local economy

COVID-19 is not a thing of the past. For one thing, local restaurants are still experiencing staffing issues from the pandemic, resulting in temporary or permanent closure.  

Randy Groves, Eugene city councilor, described the pandemic’s effects on the local commerce and community as “the COVID-19 hangover, if you will.” 

In 2020, COVID-19 surged in the U.S., businesses were forced to shut down and the economy started to deplete. According to a survey conducted in 2020 by the National Restaurant Association Research Group, “Eighty-seven percent of full-service restaurants (independent, chain, and franchise) report an average 36 percent drop in sales revenue.” A full-service restaurant includes servers delivering food and beverages to dine-in customers. 

Restaurants had to adhere to the ever-changing guidelines put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The start of to-go services, delivery, online ordering and outside seating to uphold the safety restrictions allowed the food industry to stay afloat. 

After 14 years in business, Café 440, the American cuisine restaurant in Eugene, closed in August 2022. The owner, Todd Schuetz, says he lost about 300 days of service in the dining room when COVID-19 hit. He implemented a to-go service, but lost money doing it.

Sheree Walters, owner of the vegan Cornbread Cafe, had two restaurant locations. She says the Eugene location closed for four months and the downtown Springfield location closed for five months. The Springfield location was also a music venue. It had to be packed every weekend to keep it going, but the pandemic did not allow this. 

With fewer people going out, Walters had to close the Springfield location permanently.   

Customers reached out to Walters and suggested she start a GoFundMe. Walters notes she was hesitant and had mixed feelings about it, but government assistance was not yet available. 

She went for it and reached her goal of $20,000. It was called “Help Save Cornbread.” “That got us through until we received government funds,” Walters says. 

The government provided resources for businesses during this time including grants and loans, like the Small Business Administration (SBA) Restaurant Revitalization Fund for small businesses that experienced revenue losses from the pandemic. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans also helped to maintain employee and compensation levels. 

Walters received SBA loans, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund and a PPP loan, but she says a lot of the government funding was spent on a quick-service model for the Eugene location. The quick service at this restaurant includes take-out ordering at the counter and the option to order online for pick-up. Cornbread Cafe is still not a full-service restaurant. 

Todd Schuetz’s wife, Martha Schuetz, applied for grants and loans for Café 440. They received a grant and two rounds of the PPP loans. “That assistance basically saved the company or I would have been done for when they took the dining room away,” he explains. 

“When I closed, I was down to 12 employees and we were spread pretty thin,” Todd adds. “I was very overworked, everybody was because we were trying to save the business.” 

Along with all areas of the country, Eugene experienced an increase in unemployment during the pandemic. The unemployment rate for the city increased by 3.9 percent in 2020. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program dispersed compensation to people who were eligible. All unemployment benefits related to the pandemic ended Sept. 4, 2021, in Oregon. 

Even after the unemployment compensation concluded, restaurants still struggled with staffing.

In a follow-up email, Walters added that “although I understand what is happening, the most surprising part of it all is that two weeks’ notice is a thing of the past and a lot more people don’t show up for interviews or their first day of work.”

Oregon, among other states, has “the highest insured unemployment rates” according to the U.S. Department of Labor as of Dec. 1. For October, the unemployment rate in Eugene resides at 4.4 percent. Even years after COVID-19 started, restaurants and other businesses are in search of staff.

The primary focus of the local organization, Onward Eugene, includes assisting new and existing businesses in their success. Part of any business’s success is its employees. Onward Eugene works locally to help with employment issues. 

It “is sort of the economic development arm of the Eugene Chamber of Commerce,” Nicole Desch says. Desch is the business and talent engagement director for the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce and works with Onward Eugene’s Business Expansion and Retention efforts. 

Desch says Onward Eugene shares information about grant programs, provides career tours for students, hosts hiring panels, works with the employment office and helps with career fairs and meets with businesses to “find out what their challenges are,” and what resources can assist them.

“I think a lot of people don’t know about us because we are quietly over here doing our work,” Desch notes. “We do a lot of different things that are really impactful.” 

Small business support is in need now just like it was when COVID-19 began. Restaurants have not stopped adapting to life after the pandemic. Restaurateurs all around town are trying to keep their businesses alive while also attending to their customers and employees. 

“Part of the charm was the full-service and our customers forming relationships with the servers,” Walters says. “That was really special.”

This story had been updated.