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Stacy Bertelsen puts out a sandwich board saying they are open and listing some of the available food items at Poor Boy Lloyd’s restaurant downtown Wednesday.

A survey of local businesses being conducted by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber shows that about half of companies have adjusted operating hours and 63% are canceling or planning to cancel expansions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic has prompted a new campaign Wednesday to help area restaurants and saw the city-parish offer a 30-day deferral on businesses turning in sales tax collections.

Mayor Sharon Weston Broome said the deferral means taxes collected by businesses in February won't be due until April 20 and March collections will be pushed back to May 20. Businesses will not have to pay interest or penalties if they make their monthly payments before the due date, Broome said.

"We are hopeful this order will provide a brief respite to the businesses in our community," she said at a press conference in front of Zeeland Street Market. 

Adam Knapp, BRAC president and CEO, said local businesses are starting to feel the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. BRAC launched a survey last Friday, asking businesses to discuss how the disease is affecting their operations.

About 170 companies have responded, he said. As of Tuesday, about half said they have changed their hours of operation. That's up from 25% in the first day of the survey, Knapp said. "This is changing each day," he said.

Sixty percent of businesses are expecting some amount of significant shift in sales in the course of the first and second quarter. Sixteen percent of companies are expecting no change, Knapp said.

Restaurants have been forced to shut down dine-in service and can only offer take-out, delivery or pickup services to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The Keep BR Serving campaign will sell gift cards to local restaurants that don't offer drive-through service. Twenty percent of the proceeds from the gift card sales will go directly to impacted service staff members to help cover lost tips and wages. The gift cards do not expire, so customers can use them if and when restaurants reopen. The hope is the revenues the gift cards generate will help struggling restaurants stay afloat and be able to pay their staff.

"If these businesses don't survive this crisis, big-box food is going to take over Baton Rouge culture," said Mitch Rotolo, of Rotolo's Craft & Crust. Rotolo said the money collected from the gift card sales will go into the paychecks of servers that week.

Restaurants can sign up to participate in the campaign through the website, Rotolo said. 

Broome said she is challenging the city's 100 largest employers to buy 500 gift cards and distribute them to employees.

Todd Graves, the co-founder of Raising Cane's, has already met the challenge, she said. 

"Imagine the impact we can generate," she said. "Those 50,000 gift cardS can make a world of difference to our local businesses and our impacted employees."

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