When Gov. Charlie Baker ordered restaurants across the state to close their dining rooms to sit-down patrons as a way to enforce social distancing and to slow the spread of the coronavirus last week, Chef Jeremy Kean thought he might have to lay off his staff.

Then, he took a look around the food-filled kitchen and had an idea. He could turn his remaining kitchen inventory into dumplings, putting everyone from the wait staff to dishwashers to work.

“First thing, we don’t want to waste this food,” said Kean, who owns the restaurant Brassica in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood. “Second thing, we need to make hours for people, make jobs that no longer exist for our staff that does exist."

Kean's solution is keeping his staff employed, at least for the time being, and with a newly launched take-out service, he said he's hoping to break even "or lose as little as possible." Still, restaurants like Brassica are in survival mode.

While restaurant business typically ramps up in springtime, when warmer weather and events like the Boston Marathon usually bring people out, many restaurants have shut down altogether. That impact is being felt beyond the state’s 350,000 restaurants workers, and across a network of industries that grow, transport and sell food to restaurants.

“Everyone who’s doing direct-to-restaurants is suffering in the same fashion,” said Max Harvey, managing partner at Wulf’s Fish, a Boston-based seafood wholesaler. “There’s no way to navigate out of it because a lot of restaurants aren’t formatted to be profitable doing take-out business.”

Wulf’s Fish usually provides fresh fish to a client base of 140 restaurants across the country. As of Friday, only four of those restaurants were still placing orders.

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Max Harvey, managing partner at Wulf Fish, said his company used to provide fresh fish to 140 restaurants. Now, only four are placing orders.
Stephanie Leydon WGBH News

When restaurant sit-down dining service was abruptly stopped last week, Harvey was stuck with about $35,000 worth of fresh fish. Most of that has since been frozen or donated, and workers at Wulf's Fish now have little to do other than clean the processing plant. But even with so little business, workers are still being paid. Harvey said he wants to be ready when restaurants are allowed to fully reopen, although he wonders how many will survive.

“I just worry about, not the three weeks of unemployment people are facing, but what happens after the dust settles,” he said. “Are restaurants going to be able to recuperate from being offline for so long?”

Even in good times, the restaurant industry operates on tight margins. Now profits have disappeared, but substantial bills remain.

“There’s fishermen who need to be paid, there’s landlords who are going to need to be paid. There’s employees who need to be paid,” Harvey said. “For anyone who’s in commerce that needs to be paid, question is — are they going to be able to be paid?”

There are restaurants he said that owe him money, and vendors to whom he owes money.

“Everyone’s connected,” Harvey said. “And it’s the millions and millions and millions of dollars on the street right now that’s the big concern.”

In response to the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, Baker has made low-interest loans available to Massachusetts small businesses and is extending the deadline for paying sales and meals taxes until June. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is considering a massive economic rescue package.

Harvey said he would like government efforts to include tax relief and money to cover businesses' rents and mortgages.

“I’m confident being such a grass-roots old school city that we’ll dig out of this,” he said, “but I can’t really sleep that well every night knowing what’s going on.”