As the pandemic got worse, Dr. Mark Baratz was thinking of a way to help.

“I knew that things were going to get rough in Pittsburgh,” says Baratz. “I knew that the two communities going to get hit particularly hard are the restaurant industry and people who were struggling to get by even before this all came down.”

Baratz is a clinical professor in the Department of Orthopaedics at the University of Pittsburgh and Director of the Hand and Upper Extremity Fellowship. Ironically, the COVID-19 crisis left him with some free time.

With all elective surgeries canceled, it cut way back on the number of patients he’s seeing.

In his free time, he hatched an idea that he calls “Double Play”— a chance for one donation to help in two ways. He and others pay restaurants to prepare full meals and then they get them delivered to those in need.

“We identify restaurants, and ask, ‘Can you make 50 meals today?’ If they can, someone from Casa San Jose or 412 Food Rescue picks up the meals and takes them to families in need.”

“I started out just donating some meals myself and then got some other people interested. We’re now giving out 150 to 200 meals a day. We’re working with seven restaurants and expanding as we go.”

Dr. Mark Baratz.

It started out with people Baratz knew and expanded from there.

“The first was this wonderful little Thai restaurant on the South Side called Dancing Crab, run by a woman who immigrated from Thailand,” says Baratz. “This was devastating. She had just bought a liquor license a week before it all came down. It was a crushing blow to her.

“I started with her and was introduced to this group, Casa San Jose. They said that there was a wonderful restaurant in the Strip that had been very generous in the past with their organization, called Chicken Latino.”

Other restaurants they’re working with include Salem’s in the Strip, Wahlburgers in the North Hills, 31 Sports Bar and Grille in Bridgeville, Bubba’s in Southpointe, and Tacos Mexico in Washington, Pa.

For restaurants, it helps to know they’ll have consistent business.

“It keeps them going,” says Baratz. He notes that most were closing their doors or going on unemployment, or opening just for takeout — but the volume was way down.

“These guys work on very thin margins,” notes the doctor, who adds that three of them are immigrants and struggling to get by.

“So this is a way to say, we’re going to commit to you two or three or four days a week, buying meals from you, so you can count on this base income,” he adds.

The meals are paid for in full. Baratz donated the first several thousand dollars himself, but now they’re actively seeking donations from the public.

“It’s not the time for restaurants to be charitable,” says Baratz. They have to make money to stay open.

They have distributed more than 3,100 meals since March 19. Meals have gone to the homeless and to families out of work throughout the region, from Cranberry to Monroeville to Washington, Pa.

Donations keep coming in, but it doesn’t look like the crisis will be over anytime soon.

“I thought we would be done by the beginning of May,” Baratz says. “Now it is looking like June or July. To do that, we need to raise an additional $25,000.”

“People have sent $10, $20,” he says. “Some have been exceptionally generous and made big donations. The Pittsburgh Foundation helped us find a donor who gave us $5,000 towards this project to assist the immigrant Muslim community.”

While Baratz has practiced for 30 years, he’s never seen anything like this.

“It’s all so terrifying,” he says. “I have a physician friend in New Jersey who passed away last week. I’ve never been fearful, but just before this all started I was in the clinic, and looked around and thought ‘What if I get it? What if I take this home and give it to my wife?’ And I felt fearful for the first time in my life.”

He finds it helpful to look outward.

“This has been a great way for me to put aside my fears about COVID and do something helpful or productive.”

Donations in any amount can be made to Casa San Jose (scroll to the bottom of the website. Click the yellow Donate button. On the donation page type “Double Play” into the second address line) or 412 Food Rescue (donors should put “Double Play” in the “memo” box).

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.