As concerns about the coronavirus pandemic lead state and local officials to restrict consumers dining options, owners and managers at Austin restaurants are desperately looking for ways to keep going.


After the city of Austin’s mandate Tuesday that all restaurants be limited to drive-thru, pick-up or delivery service — followed by a similar dictate from state government — thousands of jobs have been cut and revenue has plunged, owners and managers say.


At Vinaigrette, an Austin restaurant off South Congress Avenue, workers have scrambled to create a curbside and home delivery service.


It won’t be enough, Vinaigrette owner Erin Wade said.


"The rent is so high; the cost of labor is so high. We’ve all been pinching already, and our margins are thinner and thinner," Wade said. "There’s no way to make enough money on to-go orders."


On a typical day in March, Vinaigrette would have about $2,000 in sales, Wade said. Since the restaurant shifted to only to-go and delivery service, it is bringing in less than half of that, Wade said. Sales were $500 on Wednesday and $800 on Thursday, she said.


"Our staff understands that it’s impossible to go on," Wade said. "It’s heartbreaking, but we’re almost better off trying to lay everyone off so they can get accelerated benefits."


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Mike Capochiano, an Austin restaurant industry veteran and founding partner of Uchi and the Belmont, said there are actions that city, state and federal governments can take that could help stem the bleeding.


His ideas include suspending mortgage payments for commercial properties if the property owner will suspend rent payment for tenants, suspending license renewal fees, suspending sales tax payments and banning evictions.


"I don’t think loans will help in many situations," Capochiano said. "You could just end up prolonging the pain and still end up shutting down, but now more in debt. Non-recourse loans or grants would make more sense."


The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits surged last week by 70,000, indicating that the impact of the coronavirus is being felt in rising layoffs.


The Labor Department reported Thursday that applications for benefits, a proxy for layoffs, rose by 70,000 to a seasonally adjusted 281,000 last week.


The one-week rise and the total number of applications were far above the levels seen over the past year as the country’s unemployment rate fell to a half-century low of 3.5%.


Economists are predicting a surge in layoffs as efforts to contain the spreading coronavirus result in people losing jobs in a variety of industries from restaurants and bars to retailers, airlines and hotels.


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The Texas Restaurant Association has called on Gov. Greg Abbott and local officials to adopt a number of measures to support the state's restaurant industry.


"Restaurants are feeling the catastrophic impact of COVID-19 through the closures of dining rooms around the state and a dramatic slowdown in traffic from patrons," CEO Emily Williams Knight said in a written statement. "The harsh reality is that many of our small restaurant businesses operate on razor-thin margins. These changes will mean staff layoffs and could ultimately result in restaurant closures."


The association’s recommendations include suspending meal taxes where applicable; suspending property taxes; suspending estimated income and franchise taxes; and regulatory relief for restaurants in regard to unemployment claims.


When Abbott issued a waiver Wednesday allowing restaurants with mixed beverage permits "to deliver alcoholic beverages with food purchases to patrons, including beer, wine, and mixed drinks," many restaurants began to plan the next day to offer bottled cocktails, a lucrative way to attract more business.


However, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission released guidelines Thursday clarifying that restaurants can deliver distilled spirits only in their original, still-sealed containers, but not mixed drinks.


It was a more restrictive policy than some had hoped for, but Second Bar + Kitchen's downtown location is among the venues taking advantage of it. The restaurant — which is owned by La Corsha Hospitality — said it is offering $10 cocktail kits, as well as bottled wines and canned and bottled beer, as part of its to go program.


"The cocktail kits have already become quite in-demand as people are seeking comfort in these uncertain times," said Scott Walker, La Corsha's vice president of operations. "The ability to sell alcohol is definitely an added benefit. Obviously, our industry is struggling, and every provision we can offer only helps our business and staff."


With the cocktail kits, Second Bar + Kitchen provides all the ingredients without the alcohol and, with each recipe, suggests three or more spirits that would work in the drink.


Adam Orman, general manager of L'Oca d'Oro Italian restaurant in the Mueller development, said his staff is racing to find ways to survive and help other Austin establishments stay in business as well.


"We will run takeout for as long as it makes sense," he said. "We’re also going to be making things to serve through Farmhouse Delivery and have talked to a couple of restaurants about what can be done to make sure all the food in our kitchens is getting used and making its way to folks who need it."


Meanwhile, Orman is talking to the Austin City Council about setting up a task force of small businesses to make recommendations to the city and state for standardizing rent abatement policies, offering tax relief and suspending or reducing utilities payments.


"We are a unique business to try and bail out," he said. "You can go to the big insurers, big banks, big automakers, etc., and dole out checks. But our industry, despite the presence of national chains, is still dominated by individual operators. We can not leave them out of the recovery, and we must use this as an opportunity to make sure we are all on firmer footing when the country is moving again."


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Wade, the owner of Vinaigrette, said the best move government leaders can make at the moment is getting cash to merchants.


"The problem now is liquidity. Restaurants depend on brisk and steady cash flow to cover payrolls, pay vendors and keep the whole machine running," she said. "The wheels of cash flow in small business are completely frozen right now."


Even strong and profitable restaurants are going to quickly run out of cash, Wade said.


"The government needs to get cash into the economy as quickly as possible," she said. "Lines of credit that can be paid back when the fear has subsided, short-term loans, infusions, whatever."


City, state and federal authorities also should halt all taxes due, since most won’t be able to pay them anyway, Wade said.


"There needs to be dramatic action because most restaurant employees live paycheck to paycheck," said Wade, adding, "This is going to trickle down through all the businesses that support the industry."


American-Statesman staff writers Matthew Odam and Arianna Auber contributed to this report.