The coronavirus epidemic has been an enormous inconvenience — to put it mildly — for most of us. Students and educators are scrambling to find a way to make distance learning work. Stores are scrambling to keep their shelves stocked. And citizens are scrambling to find toilet paper on those shelves.

Social distancing protocols have a lot of us stuck at home, yet the virus has taken away the college basketball games — and all other sports — we’d love to be stuck at home watching. Festivals, concerts, weddings and other gatherings have been postponed or canceled. Many of us are forced to work, worship and more from home. We’re climbing the walls.

But for the food and beverage industry, the epidemic has been more than an inconvenience — it’s been disastrous. Our local business landscape will be forever altered by this situation, with many of the bars that were forced to shutter and restaurants forced to cease dine-in operations unable to recover from the business they’ll lose before mandated restrictions are lifted.

Our local restaurants are doing what they can to compensate by ramping up their to-go business through curbside pickup, delivery or teaming up with third-party delivery companies like Uber Eats, Door Dash and Grubhub.

With restrictions temporarily waived, diners can now take alcoholic beverages home with their meals. Some local restaurants, like Ralph & Kacoo’s and Café Del Rio, are selling take-home alcoholic drinks by the gallons. Bored to tears and stuck at home, many of us are drinking them — by the gallons.

Our local bars that don’t serve food, unfortunately, aren’t likely to find anyone willing to pay that kind of an up-charge for a beer or drink alone, thus forcing them to ride this out with their doors locked and their neons darkened.

So while a handful of cooks, delivery drivers and employees who assemble to-go orders are fortunate enough to still be working, that leaves a whole slew of waitstaff, bartenders, dishwashers, hosts, managers and other cooks without work for more than a month, at best, or with the businesses they work for closed for good, at worst.

Judging by the number of people so quick to scream, “We don’t need any more restaurants!” anytime we post a story to Facebook about a new eatery coming to town, it’s obvious that many in our community underestimate the importance of the food and beverage industry to our county. These aren’t just jobs for high school and college students — these are careers and livelihoods for people of all ages and demographics in a business that plays an enormous role in fueling our local economy.

In 2017, the accommodation and food services industry made up 7.33% of Lufkin’s economy, with 2,652 employees in the workforce, according to stats from Data USA. In 2019, restaurant and food service jobs made up 10% of the employment in the state, according to stats from the Texas Restaurant Association. These are jobs we must do our part to fight to protect.

So what can we do? One thing we should all be doing is ordering from our restaurants that have stayed open via delivery, takeout or curbside pickup. Your orders will keep their kitchens busy and prevent their income from disappearing. It also will allow some employees to keep working while preventing managers from having to destroy fresh food as it spoils.

Another way to help is to buy gift cards from your favorite restaurants for future use. That way they get the money now, when they need it most, while you look forward to a good meal later with the tab already settled.

Restaurant chains are extremely vulnerable at this time, but it goes without saying that our local mom-and-pop businesses are the most fragile. Likewise, pizza delivery and fast-food establishments are not feeling the same pinch as dine-in restaurants, although they all can use your help.

So be sure to frequent your favorite local restaurants as often as you can as the fallout from this pandemic continues. The repercussions of just one bar or eatery closing will be far-reaching, yet it’s a simple fact that some of our local businesses will not weather this storm.

Restaurant workers and foodies have issued a rally cry: Eat local! Let’s all do our part to heed that challenge.

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