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Local restaurants strive to support healthcare workers amid coronavirus while staying afloat

Amid layoffs and slowed business, restaurants like Mee Sum Pastry and Portage Bay Cafe remain committed to serving their communities

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Local restaurants strive to support healthcare workers amid coronavirus while staying afloat

Portage Bay, located on Roosevelt Avenue.

Will Fong, owner of Mee Sum Pastry on the Ave, was struggling to replace hand sanitizer bottles stolen out of his restaurant and find masks for his employees when he heard about Overlake Hospital’s dangerously low — in part due to theft — supply of N95 masks.

Inspired by hospital workers overwhelmed and made vulnerable by COVID-19, Fong and Chok Chea, owner of Genghis Khan, responded by establishing a GoFundMe that has since raised over $5,000 for N95 and surgical masks. 

Despite constant worries about the restaurant industry’s fragility, both owners plan to personally match donations up to their fundraising target of $10,000. Fong says his own employees have also contributed. 

The first 2,000 masks will arrive April 4 for distribution at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue and the UW Medicine-operated Valley Medical Center in Renton, a relief for healthcare workers resorting to homemade devices, with more following in the coming weeks.

Unlike other stalled efforts to source safety equipment for hospitals, Fong’s ownership of a Kent-based food distribution company that imports from places like China and Taiwan uniquely positions him to ameliorate the mask scarcity. 

“I felt it was our duty to take advantage [of our connections] and help out where we can,” Fong said. 

In addition to donating masks on a weekly basis, Fong is joining with restaurants like brunch mainstay Portage Bay Cafe in efforts to feed workers on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus

After tracking UW virology’s work on Twitter, Portage Bay co-owner Amy Fair Gunnar contacted the department in mid-March to donate breakfast for their 60 to 70 employees. A customer who heard about their donation offered to pay for the next breakfast in full. 

Since then, Portage Bay has donated two additional breakfasts, both of which were fully funded by outside donations, and another breakfast is planned for April 2

By tasking their remaining staff and, with enough demand, bringing back furloughed staff to prepare breakfasts partially or fully funded by customers, Portage Bay may simultaneously give back to healthcare workers and create work for their skeleton-staff. 

“It kills two birds with one stone,” Gunnar said. 

But this is just the beginning. 

With the help of Ellen Kuwana, a former clinical researcher whose efforts to coordinate donated meals for hospital workers went viral on Twitter, both Gunnar and Fong hope to expand their reach. 

Kuwana has worked with restaurants in the U-District like Taste of India, Cedars Restaurant, and Samir’s Mediterranean Grill to feed over 1,350 people since March 13. Within the next five days, she plans to deliver 18 more meals donated by restaurants or paid for with money raised through Facebook, Mee Sum and Portage Bay among them. 

Though Portage Bay operates solely out of their South Lake Union on reduced hours, they plan to donate breakfasts on April 6, 8, and 10. Customers interested in contributing to those meals may donate through Portage Bay’s website. 

Meanwhile, Fong plans to donate meals to the elderly through the Asian Counselling and Referral Service in addition to the virology department through Kuwana. 

“We have a lot of regular customers who are excited that they can help,” Gunnar said. “I’m completely confident we can be sending out ten times as much food.”

Reach reporter Estey Chen at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter:@esteychen

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