Should Restaurants Have Reopened? Workers Weigh In

Susan Post Susan Post Should Restaurants Have Reopened? Workers Weigh InPhoto by Susan Post
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In an anonymous survey of Central Ohio restaurant workers conducted by Columbus Underground, at least 76% of respondents feel somewhat uncomfortable working right now. Just over one-fifth of workers – 21% – feel extremely uncomfortable. Only 11% feel restaurants and bars should be open to dine-in patrons. Another 11% said it depends on the restaurant or spots should be open for outdoor dining only.

As coronavirus cases are spiking across the state, in recent weeks social media feeds have been peppered with announcements from restaurants about workers testing positive. In an effort to be transparent, several restaurants, bars and coffee shops have shared details on positive cases, closures and next steps. 

However, restaurants are not required to share this information with patrons, or even shut down. According to the reopening guidelines as outlined by the State of Ohio, in the event of a confirmed case, restaurants are mandated to “Shutdown area for deep sanitation if possible.” Falling under the state’s Recommended Best Practices are phrases like “Work with local health department to identify potentially infected or exposed individuals to help facilitate effective contact tracing/ notifications” and “Test all suspected infections and exposures.” 

The last four months have been an absolute rollercoaster for small, locally-owned restaurants. 

On Sunday, March 15, restaurants across the state were put in a position they likely never imagined. Through an executive order issued by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, all restaurants had to close for dine-in service within hours due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

At the time there were 37 confirmed cases of coronavirus across the state. 

The next days and weeks saw restaurants scrambling to figure out next steps. Many got creative, offering options like meal kits or selling produce. Several Central Ohio breweries started (and continue) to offer home delivery. Menus adjusted to be more takeout and delivery-friendly. 

However, no matter how creative a restaurant got or how much revenue they were able to sustain through to-go options, thousands of restaurant workers across the state lost their jobs. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, statewide employment in the leisure and hospitality industry dropped from approximately 544,200 in March 2020 to 278,600 in April 2020.  

Potential relief came in early May when Governor DeWine announced that restaurants and bars could reopen for outdoor dining on May 15, followed by indoor dining on May 21. The announcement was met with gusto to trepidation by local restaurant owners. Reopening came with a set of guidelines like creating floorplans with six feet of distance or barriers in between tables, mask mandates for employees (except in cases of job safety, like line cooks), and the closure of open congregate spaces like dance floors. 

Many spots reopened immediately, while others held off, fearing some of the very scenarios that are playing out right now, like what to do if a worker tests positive or not wanting to become an epicenter for an outbreak. 

Two months into reopenings, as more and more announcements come from restaurants about positive tests and closures, local Instagram feed @hawkshopp began asking restaurant workers what exactly they were seeing – and being told – by their restaurant owners to provide some first-hand perspective. 

Requesting to remain anonymous because of the threats she’s received, @hawkshopp can summarize most of what workers have shared with her in one simple statement. 

“It all comes down to businesses putting profit over people,” she says. 

She isn’t without empathy, though, for the extremely difficult situation small, local restaurants have found themselves in. Nobody wants to see restaurants fail or businesses go bankrupt. 

Restaurants operate on notoriously tight profit margins, and going for months with reduced or no revenue has already been the nail in the coffin for several local restaurants. Many restaurants are open now because it’s likely their only shot at survival. 

According to CU’s poll, a majority of workers do feel their restaurants are trying to follow the operating guidelines as laid out by the state. On a scale of 1 to 10, from ‘not closely at all’ to ‘very closely,’ 63% answered 7 or above. 

“Our owners have taken fantastic precautions and set up a system that is very safe from one way traffic, plenty of distancing, no inside seating and mandatory masks for all from day one,” one worker shared. 

Most restaurants are also providing employees with at least some personal protective equipment – 84% according to CU’s survey.  

Workers are finding discrepancies, though, in the level of transparency between management and workers, and between what is told to employees versus the general public. 

@hawkshopp shared stories about bars and restaurants testing their entire staffs, but not being forthcoming with results, beyond saying everyone was negative. In another case, employees further looked into an antibody test they were administered and found issues with the test. When confronted, management became defensive. She was also told that other restaurants told employees that coworkers had tested positive, but they were still to come in and would clean. 

Many, but not all, of the first-hand accounts were shared without identifying details. However, @hawkshopp said that as she received messages, she grouped them by restaurant, frequently receiving information from multiple employees, to try to corroborate information. She also reached out to her personal network to confirm what she was being told. 

CU’s survey results also saw some disconnect in communication between restaurants and employees.

Asked how they became aware of a positive case at their place of employment, 67% heard the news through a coworker and and 27% were told by management. One worker shared that their place of employment never actually told them about a positive case and they found out through social media. Another said management told staff who tested positive not to tell anyone, but the respondent did not elaborate if it was because management planned to share the news or they were trying to keep things quiet. 

While a restaurant’s actions are part of the equation in keeping employees safe, both CU’s survey and @hawkshopp’s first-hand accounts indicate customers’ actions are a major cause for concern. 

“At my restaurant we are doing everything correctly and safely,” a general manager shared. “However, other restaurants in the city are doing absolutely nothing, and are not being corrected by the health department. This has made our customers very combative when entering our restaurant. They say things like, “Well I can sit at the bar there.” I have also had several customers demand myself or my employees remove our masks. It’s unbelievable.”

Until recently, bars and restaurants had less of a leg to stand on when it came to enforcing mask policies. Masks have since been mandated in the City of Columbus since July 3 and Franklin County since July 7. However, the burden of enforcement is often falling squarely on the shoulders of front line workers. 

Asked to rank on a scale of 1 to 10 how closely customers are following social distancing and face covering guidelines, with 1 being ‘not following closely at all’ and 10 ‘following very closely,’ 80% of respondents gave customers a score of 5 or less. 

One bartender shared that, “Customers act like masks are a punishment and will openly mock staff for requesting them. My coworkers are breaking down from stress daily and bars all around us are closing down. I’ve never felt less safe at work and it feels like a battle versus the customers.” 

Some workers pointed out that customer courtesy goes beyond following mask mandates and social distancing guidelines.  

“As people grow weary of the rising numbers of covid, many people arent showing up for reservations,” one server said. “Take the 30 seconds to call and cancel a reservation. Restaurants staff according to business so if we know that business isn’t going to be there we don’t need to drag people out.” 

Many also expressed frustration at customers’ willingness to tip appropriately when restaurants are frequently operating at significantly reduced capacities. 

“Customers aren’t tipping any better,” one worker said. “I’m working twice as hard for half the pay. The public threw a fit to reopen but they haven’t shown up to support us.” 

Another server said if customers can’t or won’t tip, they should stay home. 

“Most servers/bartenders have been unemployed for three months and with places only letting in 50% capacity our income has taken a serious hit,” they shared.

The position that both restaurant owners and workers have found themselves in is not entirely of their own making. There has been a major lack of support and assistance at a national and state level.  

While workers were laid off during the shutdown, they were able to file for unemployment, and receive an additional $600 a week through the CARES Act. However, that additional funding ends on Saturday, July 25.

Once an employee is back at work, they lose their unemployment benefits. If a restaurant has to shut down due to a positive test or a worker finds themselves sick, there is often not a safety net for that employee to fall back on. 71% of survey respondents said they do not get paid sick leave. 

“There’s no financial protection if someone gets sick,” one worker said. “If I wake up with a sore throat that I would normally just have to work through, I’m now responsible to take time off work, get a $65 test that I can’t afford, and just pray I get negative results back in time to get back to work. Otherwise my bills won’t be paid.” 

For many restaurant workers it’s continue working and risk getting sick, or don’t work and don’t make money, producing a whole new set of worries and problems. 

“We know it’s going to get worse,” a line cook shared. “I feel like everyone is just putting themselves at risk trying to make ends meet when really we ought to [be] getting assistance. There’s just so much uncertainty. How do you plan for anything when you don’t know if you’ll have work in a week?”

Some restaurant owners expressed frustration with federally-funded programs meant to support small businesses through the pandemic. The much-publicized Paycheck Protection Program was a difficult fit for restaurants that lost a majority to all of their revenue.

The program was designed to keep employees on payroll, and if a business used 75% of their loan amount on payroll during the initial 8-week period, their loan would be forgiven. However, the math didn’t make sense for restaurants that were operating on an extremely reduced capacity, if at all. As the initial 8-week period was closing, changes to the program provided more flexibility, extending the period to use funding to 24 weeks and bumping the percentage required to be used on payroll down to 65%. It was too little, too late. 

So what’s the answer? 

Many workers expressed a desire for restaurants to curb dine-in and focus on other solutions like carryout or mobilizing their workforce for home delivery.

“I wish restaurants would explore other creative ways to do business instead of plowing ahead business as usual,” one worker said. “There is nothing normal about going out to eat right now. How entitled do you have to be to put people’s lives at risk?” 

Some restaurants have taken the lead in putting employee safety first. Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, Parsons North Brewing and others have voluntarily ended dine-in or patio service. Watershed announced its restaurant would not reopen in 2020. Some restaurants, like Harvest Pizzeria, have remained carryout only. There are many instances of restaurants, bars and coffee shops with positive tests closing down until employees are tested and spaces professionally cleaned.

But with a lack of mandated regulations and guidance from the state and minimal enforcement efforts, bars and restaurants are having to make difficult calls on their own, location by location, with response varying widely.

“I don’t think it’s reasonable that I’m forced to work while covid is spiking in Columbus,” one bartender says. “If I deny shifts, I get recalled and lose partial unemployment. If I work I potentially contract the virus. The governor said that people afraid of the virus aren’t going out.. but what about the employees that don’t have a choice? If the people aren’t concerned about a pandemic they surely don’t care about my health.”

It’s an unprecedented situation with no clear-cut solution. Virtually any solution puts livelihoods – and lives – at risk.

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