In the week since Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered bars and restaurants shut to all but carry out and delivery business to fight the spread of the coronavirus on March 17, head of the Iowa Brewers Guild J. Wilson collected reports of more than 450 brewery staff across Iowa being laid off.
That’s from just 30 breweries he had heard from as of Monday; the Brewers Guild has 105 members.
“Folks are losing their jobs left and right in the beer industry — brewers and servers and sales reps. And a lot of those people have nothing to fall back on,” he said. “A lot are part time servers, but there are full time jobs there as well. It makes your stomach turn. These are all people I know and care about.”
That’s why he’s planning the Socially Distant Beer Festival for Saturday. A real beer festival isn’t possible right now due to social distancing restrictions, but Wilson wanted to find a way to raise money for brewery and tap room employees who have lost their jobs.
People who want to help can visit virtualbeerfest.org and donate $5 for a ticket, then post a photo of themselves with their beer of choice — preferably an Iowa beer, Wilson emphasized — and join conversations using the hashtag #virtualbeerfest on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook on Saturday.
Of course, one doesn’t have to donate to use the hashtag, but Wilson hopes people will get involved with a spirit of solidarity. Larger donations can “purchase” additional things one might spend money on for a normal beer festival. Donate the gas money you’d normally give to your designated driver, Wilson suggested, or the money you’d spend on a meal or a hotel room after the festival. Those dollars could pay for actual gas, money and rent for unemployed workers.
The guild is also selling real Virtual Beer Festival T-shirts through the website and offering sponsorships. Though the festival is this Saturday, ticket and T-shirt sales will remain up through April 30.
To distribute the proceeds, Wilson has shared a Google Doc with Guild breweries, where they can report how many staff they have laid off. Wilson will divide the funds raised by that number and send out checks for the brewers to distribute to those employees.
“It might not end up being all that much. But I know the gesture is appreciated,” he said. “$5 is not much but it all adds up.”
Beyond the immediate impact on workers, Wilson also worries about the fate of breweries long term, along with the restaurants that are often major clients selling their beer. The Guild is among groups lobbying for help for small businesses at the state level and is working with national partners to lobby the federal government.
“We’re going to lose breweries through this,” he said. “What brewery owners need right now is cash in hand.”
Some breweries are turning to new ways to reach customers, like Iowa Brewing Company in Cedar Rapids, which kicked off beer delivery Monday.
They laid off taproom staff last week, and now are trying to keep paying the rest of their full time employees paid, said sales and marketing manager Matt Harding.
For now, customers can place delivery orders in Cedar Rapids, Marion and Hiawatha for any of the brewery’s six canned beers. They are only selling by the case, which is 24 beers, with mix and match options available, with deliveries going out Monday, Wednesday and Friday. They sent out 10 deliveries on the first day it was available. The brewery also offers beer to go and for curbside pickup.
“With bars and restaurants closed and the tap room also closed, we’re trying to find creative ways to continue to make money so we can keep doors open,” Harding said. “It’s not an easy situation to navigate.”
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