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It’s not just restaurants: Maryland’s caterers and staff are feeling pain of coronavirus pandemic

Rick and Louise Smith of Scaggsville, left, Carolyn Smith of Odenton and Dan Cox of Odenton enjoy samples from restaurants around Catonvsville during Monday's Taste of Catonsville event at Overhills Mansion.
Rick and Louise Smith of Scaggsville, left, Carolyn Smith of Odenton and Dan Cox of Odenton enjoy samples from restaurants around Catonvsville during Monday's Taste of Catonsville event at Overhills Mansion.(Nicole Munchel / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Aaron Gold considers his team at Zeffert and Gold Event Catering a family. His own 90-year-old mother still prepares the soups, sauces and hummus for bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and corporate functions the company caters.

But once the coronavirus pandemic hit and a state of emergency put the kibosh on events of 50, and later 10 people, Gold and other catering companies across the U.S. watched most of his spring business evaporate overnight.

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Gold laid off 32 of the company’s 40 employees.

“I want them to be okay,” Gold said, his voice breaking into a sob. “The people that we struggle with and work with, we have to say ‘You have to fend for yourself for a while.'”

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A recent survey of its members by the National Association of Catering Executives found that close to 80 percent had faced layoffs, pay reduction and other hardships as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s not surprising, it’s just gut wrenching,” said Anna Silveira, marketing manager of the Columbia based group.

And for each event, dozens of workers may be impacted.

Larry Frank, partner with The Classic Catering People, expects to see several millions of dollars in losses from events cancelled by the coronavirus. But he’s most concerned for workers and temporary employees who will lose paychecks from each cancelled event.

“In our business, it’s so dependent on people, and they are the ones that are suffering,” he said. "One cancellation impacts many, many, many people.”

The Owings Mills company has organized food drives to provide meals to furloughed and out of work staff.

Paula Brostrom, who runs Whitehouse Caterers in Catonsville, said they have been forced to postpone all events scheduled through May, including twenty plus weddings.

Their house event planner got teary eyed as she made the calls to brides and grooms.

“We feel so sad for them,” Brostrom said. “It’s the biggest days of their lives.”

Brostrom has been able to continue to pay her part-time office staff, but had to tell her usual floor staff that she won’t have jobs for them. She’s not taking a paycheck herself. “I would imagine that a lot of business owners aren’t.”

Brostrom, Frank and Gold all said they were exploring provisions in Congress’ $2 trillion coronavirus relief package that would help them rehire laid off workers.

Last week Gold was in the process of filling out paperwork for the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides funding for up to eight weeks of payroll, mortgage and rent payments as well as utilities to businesses.

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If the money — nearly $500,000 — comes through, he said, “It would be lovely." But he said the lack of answers and mixed information he was getting about the loans made it hard to have confidence.

“There’s no guidelines. It’s like the Wild West.” While some banks began accepting loan applications Friday, Gold said his bank wouldn’t begin processing applications until Monday.

He’s spoken to other catering business owners who have had similar experiences with the PPP applications. "When you do anything in a hurry this big, it’s daunting. Both to be the applicant and the people that are accepting the applications.”

Brostrom is also applying for emergency grants and loans through the state’s department of commerce and Small Business Association. It’s the first time she’s ever applied for a loan for the business, she said. Nothing has come through just yet. But: “I have hope."

Many in the industry are using the hashtag #PostponeDontCancel to encourage event organizers to reschedule their events, Silveira said. Brostrom is rebooking events through March 2021, and Frank said most of his clients had postponed their events for dates later ing the summer.

At the same time, it’s difficult to reschedule events when no one has a clear indication of when restrictions on gatherings will be lifted. Gold said he had clients with events originally scheduled for late May look into June dates. He thought that was a little too optimistic, and guided them instead to dates in late summer, fall and winter.

Gold wondered how Americans would gather again in the future. “I don’t know how we’re going to define getting back together,” he said. "You have to think about the consequences of gathering in general.”

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