The restaurant group hopes workers will return when the COVID-19 crisis ends.

Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, a multi-concept group that operates 36 locations across 15 brands and 12 states, including Ocean Prime, said Thursday it has temporarily ceased all operations and furloughed about 4,500 employees, or the “vast majority” of its workers.

“This is, without a doubt, one of the most incredibly difficult times Cameron Mitchell Restaurants has ever faced. Our hearts are with each one of our associates impacted by COVID-19, and with everyone across the U.S. and in our hometown of Columbus, Ohio,” the company said in a media statement.

CMR’s Cap City locations plan to open one last day, but the rest of the group’s fleet of restaurants will shut down at the close of business Thursday.

CMR said it “fervently” hopes employees will return when the COVID-19 crisis is over.

“Our incredible associates are our CMR family, and we are heartbroken. With them, we’ve celebrated new lives and mourned losses, we’ve laughed and cried, and we’ve worked together to serve our guests and support each other. We are committed to helping them through this unprecedented time,” the company said.

CMR also established an “Associate Relief Fund,” to which all online gift card sales from March 19–31 will be donated.

The fund, which includes personal contributions from CMR’s leadership team, will be divided evenly among the company’s 4,500 employees.

Each employee will receive a check in April, “helping them put food on the table for their families,” CMR said.

“We urge CMR Raving Fans to consider purchasing gifts cards to help support this effort: Together, we can help our devastated restaurant community,” the company said.

The Cap City restaurants in Grandview and Dublin, Ohio, are open from noon to 8 p.m. Thursday for carryout with a limited menu. The Gahanna restaurant will open from 4 to 8 p.m.

Additionally, CMR’s sister brand, 23-unit Rusty Bucket Restaurant and Tavern, is temporarily closing all of its venues as well, with the exception of a few select spots, which offered a limited menu through Thursday.

About 1,300 employees were furloughed, too. The chain said it hopes they will return.

“This is a horribly sad time for all of us as we anxiously await the end of this global health crisis,” the company said. “Our associates are the backbone of Rusty Bucket family, and we are deeply concerned about their well-being during this unprecedented time.”

There’s also an Associate Relief Fund set up for Rusty Bucket. All online gift card sales through March 31 will be donated and divided evenly among the pool of workers. “We could not be more grateful for the support of our guests and communities during this challenging time. We look forward to when we can begin to restore our business, bring our associates back, and welcome our guests back into the restaurants,” the company said.

The Dublin, Worthington, New Albany, Westerville, and Bexley restaurants remained opened Thursday for off-premises business, but were expected to close Friday.

CMR’s news follows Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group’s decision to lay off 80 percent of its staff, or roughly 2,000 workers. Meyer said the layoffs are more than all the people his company has hired in the first 20 to 25 years of business, yet without income, the restaurants cannot pay employees without becoming insolvent.

The National Restaurant Association said in a letter to the federal government Wednesday that between 5 million and 7 million jobs could be lost in the next three months and sales declines could count $225 billion industry wide.

Ohio and New York are among the growing list of states and cities banning dine-in service. And it’s left a significant trail of financial burden in its wake.

According to recent data from OpenTable, the percentage change in the number of seated diners at U.S. restaurants has steadily declined since March 1. For March 13, OpenTable said the figure plummeted close to 35 percent.

Black Box Intelligence found that nearly 70 percent of restaurant companies experienced a drop in traffic as of March 13. Eighty-five percent of upscale-casual and fine-dining brands reported a decrease.

A report from Datassential, which polled 1,000 consumers, said 27 percent of people were now “definitely avoiding” eating out entirely, a hike of 8 percent in four short days.

Consumer Trends, Feature