Coronavirus sickening Inland workers, temporarily closing restaurants, shops


The omicron surge sweeping the nation is worsening widespread staffing shortages at Inland Empire restaurants, coffee shops, hotels and wineries as waves of employees call out sick.

The absences, driven by coronavirus infections along with seasonal flu and colds, are prompting closures, shortened hours and a scaling back of services.

Benita Bratton, owner of Gram’s BBQ Restaurant and Catering in downtown Riverside, closed her dining room Wednesday, Jan. 12, after a waitress and a dishwasher — from her staff of 12 — fell ill.

“We’ve had a lot of people out with the omicron,” Bratton said. “Right now it’s so prevalent that I want to protect my staff and my business.”

Bratton worries that, if she were to continue to offer indoor dining, given that people remove masks to eat, several more employees might get sick and force her to close down completely.

“We are just hanging on by a little thread,” she said.

She plans to offer outdoor dining only “until things get better.”

There have been other closures. For example, the inside of a Starbucks coffee shop in Ontario was seen closed Thursday, Jan. 13, though the drive-thru lane was open.

On Sunday, Jan. 9, a Pomona Starbucks known for its busy drive-thru was closed completely — as was the dining room. A sign announced new, limited hours.

“When a store is experiencing a temporary staff shortage, we respond by reducing hours” to avoid overworking employees, Starbucks spokesperson Abby Wadeson wrote in a Friday, Jan. 14, email.

Those decisions are made locally, Wadeson said.

Inland Empire economist John Husing said the surge in worker absences is aggravating a staffing shortage that employers have been grappling with for much of the pandemic.

It is impossible to miss the “help wanted” signs, which Husing said are “absolutely everywhere.”

“I don’t recall a period in my over 50 years of tracking this stuff anything like this,” he said.

Restaurants, small retail stores and hotels all are struggling to fill positions, Husing said. So are warehouses and trucking companies.

“Every truck, on the back of it, has a ‘Help Wanted’ sign,” he said.

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