As quarantiners grow restless and businesses continue to undergo economic collapse, many states have started relaxing lockdown restrictions at their own, haphazard paces, despite a steadily increasing number of coronavirus deaths. As a result, bartenders and restaurant workers across the country are headed back to work, some restricted to serving only 25 percent of their normal capacity; some serving only 50 percent; some with space between tables; some requiring patrons wear masks; and some a complete and utter free-for-all.
With a limited capacity and a general reluctance from the public to step back into such establishments — a now-working Florida bartender tells me that, so far, they’ve made only five to 10 percent of their normal revenue — there’s a convincing argument to be made that such a preemptive, confounding reopening is simply a means of stripping these workers of their unemployment benefits, while exposing them to a potentially infectious public and presenting them with scant opportunities for the tips they rely on. Such a prompt reopening could also attract dangerous crowds of people who never took the virus seriously in the first place, and therefore may be more likely to harbor it. As the Florida bartender tells me, “The people coming out now are people who were never that worried about the virus.”
Likewise, the response to businesses like these reopening right now is highly divisive among their customer base. “Most people have responded positively on social media and seem like they want to come out, but we’ve had a few people say it’s too soon and that we’re jumping the gun,” the Florida bartender tells me. “One person said they’d boycott anyone who opened this early, because they see it as businesses valuing profit over people. I can tell you that we’re not turning a profit.”
The result is a situation where many bartenders feel unsafe doing work that’s far less lucrative than it once was. On Monday this week, one such bartender, James (a pseudonym), went back to slinging dine-in drinks at his bar and restaurant in Georgia, where restaurants were allowed to reopen on April 27th. Here’s his experience so far.
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I live in a small-ish coastal town [Brunswick, population 16,357] in Georgia. We’ve had very few COVID cases; less than 60, I think, and only one death. I’m still pretty worried about it, though.
The restaurant I work at hasn’t closed at all since the shutdown started. We’ve gone from full service, to only having outdoor dining, then to to-go orders only. Now, we’ve started reversing that process and just have outdoor seating, with a plan to have a few tables inside by Monday.
The main penalty to not agreeing to work the hours my boss lays out is losing my unemployment benefits: If you refuse to come in when your boss tells you to, you’ll be cut off from unemployment. But honestly, I know damn fucking well that this has been the plan from the start of the reopening. [Georgia Governor] Brian Kemp and the rest of the GOP don’t want to pay for unemployment, and they certainly don’t want to raise taxes in the state so they’d be able to pay the unemployment money that’s owed to workers in Georgia.
It’s mostly just our regulars [coming in], which is comforting, because it’s the people I’ve been in contact with the most, other than my family. It feels like we’re all in this together. [The other] night — Cinco de Mayo — was busy. All of the tables outside were occupied, and I think there are eight tables out there. We’re spreading people out like we’re supposed to — all of the tables are at least six feet apart, and we’re not allowing parties of more than six to sit together. Some nights are really slow, and some nights have been busy. We’re still offering our full menu and full bar.
Kemp made provisions in the reopen order that we keep everything sanitized and clean. I have to take the temperature of everyone who enters the restaurant. I have to spray the menus, pens and door handles with a high-proof rum that we’re getting from a local distillery — and that’s every time they’re touched. The reason we use rum is because Lysol is very hard to get around here. Also, the rum distillery is our next door neighbor, and my boss wants to help them out as much as possible. I actually work at the rum distillery part-time, so I know the rum is high enough proof to be effectively used to kill COVID — and it’s much cheaper than Lysol.
We have to clean and sanitize the bathroom after each use, too, and all staff have to wear a mask at all times. I’m wearing gloves the entire time, but that isn’t required. Otherwise, nobody is wearing masks. Literally, none of my guests show up wearing any PPE. Maybe that’s because they’re showing up to put things in their mouths, or because they just don’t care. I seriously don’t know. I haven’t left my house since mid-March, except to go to work. My partner and I just get Instacart groceries, and I order myself alcohol from our liquor distributors or buy it from my boss.
As far as people’s drinking habits go, at the restaurant, people aren’t drinking quite as much. People just aren’t hanging out as much as they used to. I do know that some people are telling me they’re drinking more than usual, but it’s usually just at the house, because they’re bored.
As far as money goes, it sucks for everyone. The restaurant is making far less money, and all the front of house workers are making way less in tips — since we’ve been doing this shutdown work, all the front of house split tips. I make $3 an hour, plus tips, unless I’m the manager on duty. Then I make $15 an hour.
It’s been strange because, technically, I’ve been making more per hour, but I’ve been putting less in my pocket, because we close early every night. Usually, on the weekends, I’d make $1,000 or so, and now I’m doing that much money in small bursts of shifts throughout the entire week. And I’m getting partial unemployment payments, but I doubt that will last long, considering this entire early reopening is just to get people off unemployment in Georgia.
The strangest thing to me is how people are reacting to all of this. It’s a mix of being really serious and being completely nonchalant at the same time. For instance, just last night, I had a lady get a curbside pickup order. She seemed very nervous about getting out of her car and being near me. When I handed her the credit card slip so she could sign it, she acted like I just handed her a vial of poison. She was extremely reluctant to touch it, but she did anyway, and signed the slip. But the kicker to all of it was that she had absolutely no PPE. If you’re going to act like that, shouldn’t you be wearing a mask and gloves? I thought that little interaction was a good metaphor for how Georgia is dealing with this.
My personal opinion about whether this is a good idea or not is mixed. Like I said, there have been very few cases here, but that could change. Nobody’s wearing masks, for the most part, and I can just tell that people have a sense that the pandemic’s almost completely over. I personally don’t want to die for a bartending gig.
Just one more thing: Please don’t call us heroes. We’re not heroes. We’re fucking regular Americans being sacrificed on the alter of capitalism to keep the stock market going.