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Restaurant industry rocked by COVID-19, gets big boost from $1.9 trillion stimulus package



FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.— One year into the pandemic, Northwest Arkansas’ restaurant industry is still maneuvering a changing landscape, including regulation rollbacks and a customer base still nervous about a return to normalcy. Many restaurant owners said it’s been the most challenging time of their lives.

Claire Hoskins is the general manager of Foghorn’s in Fayetteville. She was blunt in her assessment of working at a restaurant during the pandemic.

“It’s been wild,” Hoskins said.

On March 20, 2020, when COVID-19 cases began spiking in Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) ordered the closure of in-person dining among other things.

“Yesterday, we set forth a number of guidelines, directives in terms of business,” Hutchinson said in one of his daily COVID-19 briefings.

Places like Wright’s Barbecue in Johnson adapted by putting in a drive-through service that’s helped keep the lights on.

“We’re doing what we can,” said owner Jordan Wright. “The drive-through’s doing good business for us.”

Surviving doesn’t mean thriving.

Arun Sandhu, the owner of Punjabi’s Kitchen in Springdale, said the uncertainty of changing directives was cause for worry.

“I was just trying to see how I could survive and stuff like that,” Sandhu said.

At one point, Sandhu said he feared he’d have to close his business, something that’s happened to other establishments in Northwest Arkansas.

“Keeping employees wasn’t easy,” Sandhu said. “I had to infuse some money in there, some capital. I just invested some money in there to hang on.”

Sandhu said delivery services like Uber Eats, DoorDash and Grubhub brought back a lot of business, 80% of which was lost at the heart of the pandemic.

After nearly a year of restaurants fighting to stay afloat, the governor rolled back capacity restrictions in late Feb. 2021. Restaurant workers aren’t yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines despite constant human interaction and rolled-back restrictions.

“Outside of the masks and everything, you would’ve thought it was just a normal day,” Hoskins said of the weekend immediately following the governor’s announcement, which included the Razorback basketball and baseball teams playing.

Mervin Jebaraj is a University of Arkansas economist. He said grant programs to keep businesses afloat will soon disappear, and many are in agreements to pay back full rent after the pandemic.

“What we don’t want is having them survive, limp along, the economy gets back to normal, then the businesses end up closing because they can’t pay back rent,” Jebaraj said.

Part of the $1.9 trillion stimulus package directly addresses the restaurant industry through grants. Jebaraj said this will be more effective than PPP loans in keeping spots afloat.

Still, Sandhu said he’s ready to get past this period.

“I’m just hoping for the best, that life will go back to normal as it was,” Sandhu said.