CLAYTON — Even though O’Brien’s didn’t have a case of COVID-19 within its staff, a virus scare has caused business at the restaurant to plummet, and employees might have to be laid off as a result, the owner said, coming right as the additional $600 weekly unemployment benefit is coming to an end.
Some business owners have expressed concern with incentivizing employees to work when they are receiving unemployment insurance and an additional $600 a week.
But now the additional $600, which is called the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, is coming to an end on Saturday. Michael Hazlewood, owner of Wood Boat Brewery, said he’s relieved.
“It’s going to give people incentive to come back to work,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate, but other places are hurting for employees.”
Elizabeth “Buffy” Golden has owned O’Brien’s for 17 years. She shares Mr. Hazlewood’s sentiment and adds that the $600 did help stimulate the economy.
“I think we need to get people back to work,” she said, “but I do feel the $600 gave people the flexibility to come out and support businesses.”
Unemployment rates in the north country for June came out recently. They were high, economists say, but they were on par with the rest of the country. Jefferson County was at 11.2 percent, St. Lawrence was at 10.7 percent and Lewis County was at 9.2 percent, all more than doubling the rates from June 2019.
As much as she doesn’t want to, Ms. Golden said she might have to add to those numbers. About a week ago there were a few virus cases in Clayton, resulting in some restaurants having to close out of precaution. That included O’Brien’s, but Ms. Golden only closed for a day to clean, and there weren’t any cases found in her staff. Three days later, the state provided free COVID-19 testing in Clayton. Nearly 430 people were swabbed, and results show only three tested positive.
“If you had a free test, wouldn’t you go take it? And all these people went out and did it. I give them credit for doing that,” Ms. Golden said. “But I think it scared a lot of people. Now that they have the results back, I’m hopeful customers won’t be as scared.”
She’s hopeful because business has taken a big hit over the last week. Ms. Golden said she had to shut down at 9:30 p.m. on a Saturday for the first time in her nearly two decades of running the place.
“I am scared that if business continues to fall, I may have to lay off a few people,” she said, “and it’s the last thing I want to do.”
The potential layoffs at O’Brien’s comes as the $600 additional unemployment benefit comes to an end, which more than half of her 22 employees were receiving.
“It’s going to affect those employees who might get laid off because they’ve been getting that $600 since March 17,” Ms. Golden said. “It’s going to affect them greatly.”
The dive in business comes after a multitude of factors that have impacted restaurants and bars like O’Brien’s. Bar business was hurt tremendously, Ms. Golden said. There was an increase in food prices. Ms. Golden said she saw the cost of hamburger go from $2.65 a pound to $4. She said she’s trying not to raise prices for customers, but the double-whammy affect of alcohol sales and food-price increases has taken a toll.
“I just want to get back to normal and get my business back,” she said. “Every day I have anxiety building more and more.”
COVID-19 disappearing is the only thing that will fully alleviate the situation, she said. But in the meantime, she is asking that customers follow state guidelines by wearing masks.
“Please follow the safety guidelines. We’re here for you. We want your business. We have to follow the guidelines,” she said. “Wearing masks is the last thing we want to make people do, and wearing masks all day is the last thing we want to do, too. But we have to, and we all have to follow these rules to get this over with.”
Ms. Golden is grateful that her employees have stayed with her since March. She had five employed when the pandemic first hit and she gradually added staff until she got back to 22 working again.
“They were there for me, and I want to be there for them,” she said. “I want to stay open.”
O’Brien’s’ bar area continues to be open seven days a week, while the dining area — both at half capacity — is open on Mondays and Thursday through Saturday. There is also outdoor dining and take-out. The menu is only slightly limited, she said.
“I have been in business for 17 years, and I don’t want COVID to take me out,” Ms. Golden said. “I will fight until the end.”