What The Hell Are Bar And Restaurant Workers Supposed To Do For The Next Few Months?
"I'm not worried about this virus; I'm worried about all these other things."
Bar, restaurant, and club workers have been left reeling this week after states across the country — including New York, California, Washington, Louisiana, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey — shut bars and clubs and dramatically curtailed restaurants in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
"I basically no longer have a job," Beth Willow, a 28-year-old bartender in New Orleans who lives paycheck to paycheck, told BuzzFeed News.
On Monday, the French Quarter bar where she works, Jewel of the South, went into lockdown after the new monthlong guidelines announced by the Louisiana governor. Now the venue will only be delivering food. "No one is Uber eats-ing craft cocktails — although they should," said Willow.
"I'm lucky to live with my partner and be stocked up on food and supplies, but what happens after? How do we pay rent and bills?" she asked.
Service and hospitality workers are at a higher risk than many other professions of catching the coronavirus because of their close proximity to customers. Many often take public transportation to work, where they are then handling money, food, and drinks — often in enclosed spaces.
But the total immediate shutdown of work has left hospitality staff, already a traditionally casual workforce with few benefits or protections, in a precarious financial situation. Many workers worry more about the financial impact they are facing than any potential risks associated with the coronavirus.
"I'm not worried about this virus; I'm worried about all these other things," said Maja, a 35-year-old dancer in two New Orleans strip clubs who asked to be identified using only her first name.
For days, restaurant and bar owners watched as business slowed amid the upsurge in news on the coronavirus and wondered how they should handle it. Should they close as a public health precaution — and leave staff without work — or wait until the government forced them?
"It's really hard to wrap your head around the severity of it," said Alex Guzman, a 44-year-old chef and co-owner of Archer & Goat, a neighborhood restaurant in Harlem, New York.
On Sunday, Guzman met for four hours with his wife and co-owner, Jenifar Chowdhury, 41, and their other business partners. Together, the group ran the numbers to figure out if they could afford to stay open as a to-go restaurant. They decided that it made the most sense to shut entirely if restrictions were announced, which Mayor Bill de Blasio did later that evening. "At the end of the day, we pay our bills by selling alcohol," said Guzman.
Bar owner Ivy Mix, whose Brooklyn cocktail bar Leyenda has garnered critical acclaim, including a nomination in the industry’s top James Beard Awards, decided to close on noon Sunday, after receiving criticism from locals for initially remaining open. "We got really nasty messages online," said Mix, 34.
It was only after her landlord agreed to suspend the bar's rent that Mix decided to go ahead with closing — just hours before the decision by de Blasio.
“It’s been a very trying and hard time for people in the hospitality industry," she said. "We are not people who have a 401(k), get paid time off, get sick leave. When we work, we get paid. When my bar is open, I get paid."
April Glick, 31, who works at Manhattan cocktail bar Ampersand, had been wanting bars and restaurants to close down because of the public health need for social distancing in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus. "How many credit cards have I touched in the last two weeks? I've been thinking about that nonstop," said Glick.
But she’s also deeply worried about the financial implications the closures will have on her and other workers. "Of course I want to do this for the greater good, but I also like to pay my rent," said Glick.
The ability, or inability, to pay rent is a top concern for many in hospitality — whether that’s paying their rent at home or on their business.
Miles Sykes, 32, a single parent who earns around $2,100 a month as a line cook at BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse in Sacramento is extremely worried about how he’ll afford rent this month. His hours have been cut and he’s lost $500 in canceled drag performances at clubs.
"I got really stressed out yesterday," he told BuzzFeed News on Monday. "I split custody of my son with my ex, if I can't pay my rent ... I'm going to lose time with him."
California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday that evictions would be halted and foreclosures slowed in order to help protect people struggling financially during the crisis. New York has announced a similar pause on evictions.
These measures were applauded but still don’t go far enough, according to the hospitality and service workers who spoke with BuzzFeed News.
"Ideally, it would be nice for them to do stuff like suspend rent payments," said Sykes, who has been looking for a roommate to split the $1,710 rent of his two-bedroom home, but fears that will now be near impossible. "We’re the ones making the money for [major corporations] and we can't get any help at all.”
While some in hospitality have a partner who is still working and earning income, others have found their significant others are also in financial trouble. The partner of New Orleans bartender Willow works in events. “He was booked for all of April and every single one was canceled,” said Willow.
Michael Garabito has poured and mixed drinks in his job as bartender at the Metropolitan Opera at the Lincoln Center in New York City for 20 years, but the Met Opera closed March 12 due to coronavirus concerns. His wife is a teacher of students with special needs at a school in Harlem, and since schools have also stopped, so has her job. "We don't have any kind of money coming in to us," Garabito, 42, told BuzzFeed News.
Normally, he earns around $900-$1,100 every two weeks, and his wife brings home $1,200. Their monthly rent on their Bronx apartment is $1,200, with utilities taking it close to $1,500. “That means for the next three weeks, if nothing happens, I’m going to go broke," said Garabito.
A Federal Reserve report from 2019 showed that 39% of Americans would struggle or be unable to pay an unexpected $400 expense. But even among people with some savings, the uncertainty around the coronavirus is a nightmare.
"I had that amount of savings and I'm still in a really terrible situation," said Jordan Schauberger, a 25-year-old server at the Dylan, a brunch restaurant in Orange County, California. Schauberger is expecting his $2,500 monthly income to halve as the restaurant moves to only to-go orders. He said he and his girlfriend, whose campus job has also been cut dramatically, will be soon living only on savings.
Others are wishing they had done more to save money.
Maja, the dancer at two strip clubs on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, began working every single day last week in order to build up whatever financial buffer she could. She worked all weekend, watching while police tried to shut down bars and send people home from the packed tourist establishments to encourage social distancing and stop the spread of the virus. "I mostly wish for myself that I had generated savings,” she said.
Many BuzzFeed News spoke with are in a similar situation.
Sykes, the Sacramento line cook, is madly trying to pick up work via DoorDash in order to pay rent.
Garabito, the Met Opera bartender, said all the money he and his wife had saved for a future home will be used to pay expenses while both are out of work.
Glick, the Manhattan cocktail bar worker, estimates she can last three to four weeks without an income, but has had friends Venmo her money as they know she lost work.
Willow, the New Orleans bartender, estimates she has about three weeks’ worth of supplies and money before she and her partner would need to reach out to family for help.
"It's easy to get caught up in the health aspect, but there’s still a whole other side of this that could be just as devastating for some people," said Schauberger, the server from Orange County.
On Sunday night, the Harlem restaurant Archer & Goat let their five part-time staff go. After their busiest-ever week since opening in February 2019, last week saw a 60% reduction. All their group weekend bookings canceled. They needed to "stop the bleeding," said Guzman, the chef and co-owner.
He and wife/co-owner Chowdhury are hoping that other options may materialize to help support their eight full-time staff, who just received their last check. Chowdhury estimates they, as owners, can survive two or three months of a closed restaurant before reopening is untenable.
Sen. Mitt Romney suggested this week a $1,000 one-off payment to every American adult to "help ensure families and workers can meet their short-term obligations and increase spending in the economy." On Tuesday, President Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin signaled they were trying to put such a plan into action.
Many of the people BuzzFeed News spoke with had pleaded for the government to help affected businesses and their workers.
"Not having lines of credit, not having cash reserves, not being able to offer health insurance to our staff, not being able to offer paid sick leave — it’s way too fragile," said Chowdhury. "We need cash and grants to get us out here."
The couple also want landlords to suspend rent payments for the month. Sales tax for their restaurant is due on the 20th, and there is a 10% fee for late payments, which they're hoping will be suspended.
New York City is offering $75,000 interest-free loans to small businesses that've been affected by a 10% drop in businesses because of the coronavirus, but Brooklyn bar owner Mix doesn’t believe straddling businesses with more loans will help. Instead, she wants grants. "They are going to have to give $75,000 to bars and restaurants,” she said.
The Metropolitan Opera bartender, Garabito, said he hoped government protections for lost wages would be rolled out. "We should get paid for the days we’re not working,” he said, “because this is not an issue we have created.”
Restaurant owner Chowdhury said the shutdowns have highlighted how quickly the hospitality industry can collapse: "I just hope ... once this gets to a more stable place, the government will really look into protections for this industry," she said.
Until then, workers and businesses are trying to get creative.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that due to the service industry shutdowns, restaurants and bars could start selling alcohol to-go.
On Tuesday morning, Guzman decided to start “pretty much an adult lemonade stand,” selling Archer & Goat’s signature cocktails to-go at $30 for a quart. “It’s a one-man show,” he said. “I can’t afford to pay staff.”
Mix said she's hoping to reopen Leyenda as soon as possible, even if it's selling to-go tacos and margaritas out the window. For the first time, the bar is also offering gift certificates for sale.
Sykes said he’s seen many local drag performers putting their Venmo on social media, or posting shows from home and asking for Venmo donations, since clubs are closed.
Maja, the dancer from New Orleans, had planned to spend the summer visiting family in Poland. Now she’s unable to work and worries when she will be able to again.
"This whole shutting down of everything makes me feel more distressed than the potential of catching this virus," she said.