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Jay Gurner, a bar manager, puts a drink at the Brazen Head Irish Pub in Omaha on St. Patrick's Day. The restaurant and bar was having to turn people away from the dining rooms after Gov. Pete Ricketts called for public gatherings to be limited to 10 or fewer people to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

Like many restaurant owners, Mitch Tempus began his day Tuesday wondering how he and his employees were going to survive the huge hit his business has taken from the coronavirus.

With public gatherings limited to 10 people in an effort to slow the spread of the deadly bug — effectively turning Tempus’ two Fernando’s Cafe and Cantina locations into carryout-only restaurants — he’s had to furlough his entire wait, hosting and busing staff.

So Tempus was buoyed by reports out of Washington later in the day of a torrent of emergency economic aid the Trump administration and Congress are looking to unleash, including sizable checks paid directly to American workers.

“I’m waiting to find out more details about it,” Tempus said. “But I’m glad to hear they are thinking about small business and the employees affected by this thing.”

Indeed, details and the total size of the package were still being worked out between the administration and congressional leaders Tuesday. But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said at a Washington press conference that officials were looking at a package that would include payments to small businesses, loan guarantees to critical industries and direct stimulus checks to workers.

“We are looking at sending checks to Americans immediately,” Mnuchin said. “You can consider this business interruption payments to the American worker.”

There was talk that the checks to workers would be as much as $1,000 or more and that they would be cut off above certain income levels. The total package the administration was pitching could approach $1 trillion, and there was talk that it could move in Congress yet this week.

The stock market certainly liked the talk, too, as it rebounded somewhat on Tuesday after massive losses Monday.

The idea of $1,000 checks originated with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who on Monday said they would “immediately” help tide people over until other government aid can arrive. The idea isn’t new. During both the Great Recession and in the wake of 9/11, the government sent out direct checks.

Most economists across the political spectrum like the idea because it’s simple and relatively fast. And while a $1,000 payment won’t fully compensate people, experts and politicians say it’s a good first step to help people buy groceries and pay rent. It works out to the equivalent of one week of pay for the typical American.

All sides — the House, Senate and White House — agree that more federal resources are needed to handle the COVID-19 economic fallout that’s coming.

Trump himself mentioned restaurant workers and their needs during the press briefing.

“You have people who work on tips, and they do nicely and work very hard,” he said. “We have to take care of our people. It wasn’t their fault this thing is upon us.”

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While the COVID-19-related shutdowns are hurting business of all sizes and across all industries, perhaps none face bigger challenges than small restaurants, bars and retail shops that have lost access to nearly all their customers due to restrictions on public gatherings. They have been left to ponder how to pay their bills with little or no money coming through the door.

“The restaurants themselves are just devastated and scared to death they might not be able to continue,” said Jennie Warren, executive director of the Omaha Restaurant Association.

And they’ve had to have tough conversations with their employees, too.

Tempus said he had a busing staff worker come in to work Tuesday unaware that the dining room had been shut down. There were no tables for her to bus.

“She didn’t cry, but you could see on her face there was a lot of concern about how she and her husband were doing to make it,” he said.

As of now, Tempus has had to tell more than 70 of his 87 employees that there is no work for them until operations return to normal. Those employees are eligible for unemployment, and the state has taken steps to speed up such aid during the crisis, but those benefits cover only about half of lost wages.

Tempus said that’s why the talk of additional assistance out of Washington is so encouraging.

Anthony Messineo, vice president of Valentino’s, liked what little he heard, too. While Valentino’s locations across the state remain open for carryout, he said the restaurants have been bracing for the virus’s impact and trying to figure out what to do about staff. He’s eager to see the details of what ultimately emerges from Washington.

“Those are all the right words they are saying,” he said. “We are definitely going to keep our ears open and get that information to all of our workers. They rely on their income to pay the bills and put food on the table.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Washington Post.

Reporter - Metro News

Henry is a general assignment reporter, but his specialty is deep dives into state issues and public policy. He's also into the numbers behind a story, yet to meet a spreadsheet he didn't like. Follow him on Twitter @HenryCordes. Phone: 402-444-1130.

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