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'Waffle House Index' goes Code Red due to COVID-19

Thursday, March 26th 2020, 4:20 pm - The spread of coronavirus is forcing the restaurant chain, known for always being open, to close hundreds of locations

COVID-19 is setting off a Code Red on the Waffle House Index.

As of March 26, Waffle House, a restaurant chain famous for its reputation of staying open, no matter what is going on, or how bad the weather is, has closed over 420 locations across the American South.

Even as of March 15, the company was proudly stating that all of its roughly 2,000 locations were open, serving take-out orders only,

"At Waffle House, we take great pride in being open to serve the communities where we work, live and raise our families," a company statement read. "Our mission has been to provide an essential service in our communities during difficult times for all, including first responders and health care providers."

On March 24, however, they closed 365 locations, shut down more in the days after, and are likely to close more in the days ahead.

Waffle House Sign Yonikasz Wikimedia CommonsWaffle House sign in Indianapolis, Indiana. Credit: Yonikasz/Wikimedia Commons

WHAT IS THE WAFFLE HOUSE INDEX?

In the wake of the catastrophic damage caused by an EF-5 tornado that swept through Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011, then FEMA director Craig Fugate was quoted as saying, "If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That's really bad. That's where you go to work."

Seven years earlier, during 2004's Hurricane Charley, when Fugate was director of the Florida Emergency Management Division, he and his team members were surveying damage in the aftermath of the storm. As they drove around, they noted how Waffle House locations in the area were either operating on a reduced menu or were closed due to damages.

1280px-Waffle-House-Katrina-Damage-USNavyU.S. Navy Seabees from Construction Battalion Center, Gulfport, Miss., remove debris left by Hurricane Katrina on U.S. Highway 90 in Gulfport. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Ja'lon A. Rhinehart

For a restaurant chain that prides itself on always being open, no matter what, this was a big deal. It led to Fugate and his team to set down the three levels of what came to be known as The Waffle House Index.

  • Green: open and serving a full menu
  • Yellow: only serving a limited menu due to a blackout or low food supplies
  • Red: closed due to severe damage or flooding

When Fugate became director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 2009, he continued to use the Waffle House Index to gauge damages from severe weather. However, it never became an official metric used by the agency.

WaffleHouseIndex-Red-418-March252020Waffle House Index map for March 25, 2020, when the chain closed 418 locations. Credit: Waffle House/Twitter

Although it remains an unofficial method of determining the severity of disaster impacts in the United States, in the past, this was only used to track damages due to hurricanes, floods or tornado outbreaks.

Now, the Index is having to account for the pandemic spread of a potentially deadly virus, too.

Teaser image courtesy Wikimedia Commons user Yonikasz, under Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Sources: Waffle House | FiveThirtyEight

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