Image via Shutterstock Waffle House closures
Image via Shutterstock

As of Wednesday afternoon, 420 restaurants had closed.

Waffle House has closed more than 400 of its stores amid the growing novel coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant chain said Wednesday.

Waffle House initially announced the closure of 365 stores Tuesday, before shuttering an additional 55 more on Wednesday, bringing the total number of closures to 420, according to a company spokeswoman. More than 1,500 stores still remain open nationwide, but the restaurant closures are a sign of just how dire the coronavirus pandemic is. 

The decision was driven by plummeting sales figures and state-level restrictions on how restaurants can operate.

“This week, with stricter restrictions being implemented, our system sales have declined by about 70% below normal levels,” Njeri Boss, Waffle House Director of Public Relations, said in an emailed statement. “So, we’ve made some painful decisions. Over this past week, 420 Waffle Houses across the country have temporarily closed.”

The Georgia-based restaurant chain has become known over the decades for always being open, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, regardless of environmental conditions or current events. The store’s always open status is so ubiquitous that FEMA, the federal agency in charge of disaster response, uses the“Waffle House Index” as an informal measure of the severity of disasters, such as hurricanes, tornados, and other environmental hazards.

What exactly is the Waffle House Index? Well, if a store is open, it means your community has been spared. If the store is open with a limited menu, you’ve probably incurred some damage. If your store is completely shuttered, you’re in a disaster zone.

The coronavirus outbreak isn’t the first time Waffle House has been forced to shutter some stores. Waffle House closed 30 stores ahead of Hurricane Michael in 2018, a disaster that ultimately affected 500 of its stores in Florida and Georgia in some way. But as USA Today reported in 2019, all but three of those stores were back to being fully open within days of the storm. 

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The chain, which is predominantly clustered in the southeastern United States, also closed 107 stores in Louisiana and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The coronavirus is different, and the chain has declared an “Index Red,” closing more than 20% of its stores with no timetable for reopening them.

Waffle House’s decision underscores the severity of the coronavirus pandemic that has already infected more than 55,000 Americans and killed over 800, as of Wednesday afternoon.

“Never has the Waffle House Index been used to track the effects of an event that was not weather-related, until now,” Boss said.

Many Americans immediately understood the significance of the closures and took to Twitter to share their alarm.

“Waffle House has incredible resiliency plans including limited menus to maintain minimal operation,” another user wrote. “So for them to close? Like, actually close? That’s a Big Deal.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Waffle House spokeswoman Njeri Boss.