Restaurant, donors provide free meals for kids during COVID-19 school closure
LAS CRUCES - A private business is hoping to augment state efforts to ensure local children stay fed while schools are closed and bars and restaurants are restricting seating under the direction of the public health department.
The social-distancing measures were directed by the New Mexico Department of Health last week in order to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, of which 21 cases had been identified in New Mexico by health officials as of Monday afternoon.
Marci Dickerson, owner of The Game Sports Bar and Grill on Espina Street as well as The Game II on Northrise Drive, announced Saturday that both restaurants would offer their children's menu items for $2 while the public schools are closed.
On Sunday, Las Cruces comedian and DJ Tommy Black announced on his Facebook page that he would pay for 50 of the meals himself, and challenged others to join in.
The idea proved, well, infectious: By Monday, more than 30 donors from the community contacted Dickerson or turned up at the restaurants to pay for more than 3,000 meals for kids.
Her Dos Equis beer distributor got into the act as well, offering a free beer to patrons who donate a meal.
Tommy Black said the inspiration to pitch in arose from the heart. "Las Cruces has always showed me love," he told the Sun-News. "I decided to show it back."
Dickerson said children under 12 will eat for free, dine-in or takeout, as long as the funds are there, and she would continue to accept donations for the effort. Delivery service is not generally available, but she said they would assist "on a case by case basis, to make sure kids get fed."
The aim was to ease pressure on food systems that may be taxed by the sudden closure of the schools.
"A lot of these parents, they have to go to work, and now their children are home," Dickerson said in an interview at her Northrise Drive restaurant Monday. "Not only do you have the problem of how do you care for your children, but the expenses on replacing those meals is incredible."
Impact on service industry looms large
New restrictions on public accommodations took effect Monday, per directives by the Department of Health.
Restaurants, bars, breweries, eateries and other food establishments are being asked to operate at no greater than 50 percent of maximum occupancy and no greater than 50 percent of seating capacity. Tables and booths are to be limited to six people, and occupied tables and booths are to be separated by at least six feet. Bars are not to serve standing patrons or allow seating at the serving bar itself.
At The Game II, most of the tables and chairs had been removed from the dining room Monday, and a few patrons were seated at a distance from each other. The upstairs dining area was closed off entirely, and hand sanitizer stations had been installed.
"We're doing our best to make sure our customers who choose to eat with us are as safe as they can be," Dickerson said, but she expressed worry for the economic impact. Her catering business had already lost $225,000 due to event cancellations over the next month. "To say it's devastating is an understatement," she said.
Thus far, however, she has not laid off her 35 catering employees, nor any restaurant staff. Instead, she told the Sun-News she was finding work for her employees through assistance projects submitted to Revolution 120, the community nonprofit she founded in 2017.
Dickerson also voiced concerns about the national economy in the wake of the public health emergency. In Washington, President Donald Trump called for Americans to avoid bars and restaurants as the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the United States, and conceded that the country may face an economic recession as a consequence of the pandemic.
"It is a very scary time because the economics of this are that these people have to be paid. People have to be able to live," she said. "If we can't generate paychecks, we're going to have issues."
The meals are available for pickup or dine-in at either The Game (2605 S Espina St.) or The Game II (4131 Northrise Dr.). Donations can be made at either location or by sending a text message to 575-644-0778.
Through a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, schools and non-school sites are also providing breakfast and lunch to all children under age 18 needing food. The meals are "grab and go," and must be consumed off-site, following guidelines for social distancing. New Mexicans can call 1-833-551-0518 or email email@example.com for additional information.