The state’s Tuesday announcement of a decision to suspend dine-in service at restaurants and bars — an action taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 — was difficult news for the local restaurant community.
On Tuesday evening, shortly after the announcement of the dine-in suspension, Anna Davidson, owner of Jessie Jean’s Homestyle Cafe & Coffee, posted a video to the restaurant’s Facebook page asking for the community’s support.
“I decided to do this video in the quiet of the restaurant alone, because I knew I would cry, and I’ve been really trying hard to stay strong for my staff and not let this overwhelm me, but I’m pretty overwhelmed,” Davidson says in the video.
“Thank you again for supporting us,” she continues. “We’re going to continue to need your support, as well as all of our other friends and restaurant businesses right now. ... This could ultimately cost a lot of us our businesses.”
Though dine-in service is closed, restaurants are still open for pickup orders. But the uncertain environment is still keeping people away.
Even before the suspension of dine-in service, Davidson’s business plummeted.
On March 12, the day Gov. Gary Herbert called to restrict gatherings to 100 healthy people or fewer, Davidson said business at Jessie Jean’s was down 86% from the same day the previous week.
But Northern Utahns are looking for ways to help.
Word spread among federal employees working for the Internal Revenue Service that Jessie Jean’s had fallen on hard times.
Jessie Jean’s and other local restaurants had circled the wagons around federal workers during a 34-day shutdown of the U.S. government, which lasted from late 2018 through early 2019, providing them free food so their families could weather a long period without pay.
Now these same workers are paying back the favor. Employees have been placing pickup orders and dropping by for coffee whenever they can. Others have been sharing the restaurant’s Venmo information to donate money outright.
Davidson says she doesn’t have a count, but she’s had enough people tell her they work with the IRS that she knows something is going on.
“We enjoy our community and want to give back to everywhere, but specifically those companies that helped us out when we were in need because we won’t forget that,” said Krystle Kirkpatrick, an employee of the IRS who is also the communications coordinator for Chapter 67 of the National Treasury Employees Union.
“If we get shut down (due to COVID-19), we’re not going to be ... looking at not getting paid,” Kirkpatrick continued, “and they are, so now they’re in the same situation that we were, and it’s scary.”
This isn’t an initiative of the IRS, as employees say that would not be permitted. It’s an organic effort that’s spreading person-to-person.
Jonnie Melendez, a employee of the IRS and resident of South Ogden, described the phenomenon as “a community movement.”
During the government shutdown, Melendez and her husband, who works at Hill Air Force Base, both benefited from the generosity of Jessie Jean’s — as well as other businesses that supported the workers, like Bickering Sisters and an Old Frontier gas station. Kirkpatrick also mentioned Great Harvest.
“We were a community when the government shut down, and we are coming together as a community now,” Melendez said in a message. “I don’t see it as a ‘government employee’ thing. We are all just neighbors, you know?”
To support these businesses through their difficulties, Visit Ogden and Ogden Downtown Alliance have compiled a list of restaurants and contact information on a webpage called “Support Ogden Dining” — so community members can more easily place phone or online orders for pickup.
These efforts may not be enough to keep small businesses alive, acknowledged Kim Bowsher, executive director of the Ogden Downtown Alliance. Many will also need to turn to other supports, such as loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which recently became available to eligible Utah businesses.