It’s Saturday night in Portland, just days before Gov. Janet Mills will sign an emergency order forcing the closure of all dine-in restaurants and bars across the state.
While March tends to be a slow month for Portland’s restaurants, Saturdays are still our busiest night of the week. Although my co-workers and I are aware our dinner reservations have dropped in half, walk-in diners are keeping our numbers up; perhaps some are feeling stir-crazy after a week of working from home.
My first table of the evening is a kind, middle-aged couple visiting from Massachusetts. Our brief exchange of formalities and drink orders quickly turns to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it is altering daily life. The conversation ends as both insist, “we’re definitely not sick, you don’t need to worry about exposure from us!”
Despite their well-intentioned reassurance, I work through the shift with an overall sense of anxiety, knowing many carriers of COVID-19 are asymptomatic. By the end of the night I have touched utensils and dinnerware from every table, in addition to countless credit cards. If any of our diners are carrying the virus, I’ve certainly been infected, not to mention the rest of our staff who work in the close quarters found in so many restaurant kitchens. It requires little foresight to see how any open restaurant could significantly increase the spread of COVID-19.
I certainly did not want to be working that night, and I am grateful that Maine has since taken action to close all restaurants. Before the forced shutdown, many owners faced the difficult decision between closing to protect staff and the public from the spread of the virus, and staying open to continue paying employees and avoid substantial debt. With most restaurants operating under thin revenue streams, even when we are not experiencing a pandemic and global economic collapse, the decision to close is a difficult one.
However, 17,000 restaurant workers across Portland now find themselves laid off and without work. Most of us do not have health insurance – not to mention paid sick leave, both of which are vital to a society confronting an unprecedented public-health crisis. Many of my coworkers will struggle in the coming weeks and months without their paychecks, and despite the expansion of eligibility requirements for unemployment insurance, living on half your expected income will not cover the cost of living.
At this point, I applaud the few restaurants that continue to pay their employees despite the bleak prospects of the next few weeks. Outside of the heroic owners who prioritize the well-being of their workers over the long-term health of their businesses, most of us have few options for financial support.
While some hope lies in the amazing charities offering grants to laid-off workers – the Restaurant Worker’s Community Foundation, or the United States Bartenders Guild Bartender Emergency Assistance Program – we must remember that philanthropy is only a Band-Aid solution. It will not remedy the long-standing gaps in our Social Security net this crisis has exposed.
People across the service industry face uncertain futures; from Uber and Lyft drivers, housecleaners and nannies, airline and transportation workers, to food-service and retail employees. Many have lost their jobs already and many more will, with an unprecedented number of unemployment applications filed across the country in the last week alone. And with the failing condition of our economy, there’s no telling when these jobs will return. Some may never return at all.
This reality requires immediate solutions, including robust financial support from the government for those without income, a moratorium on all evictions, and a guarantee that no one will incur crippling medical debt for seeking care in this pandemic. Only through empowering people directly impacted by this crisis to care for themselves can we most safely and humanely navigate this moment together.
In the coming weeks, I will find support in my friends, family, and the local mutual-aid groups that have already begun to meet needs and band our communities together to confront this crisis.
To my fellow restaurant workers, stay safe and look out for one another. No one knows how long this will last.
Robby Lewis-Nash is a restaurant server living in Portland and has worked across New England serving, cooking, baking, and farming. He is also a contributing writer at Maine Beacon, and a community activist and member of the Southern Maine Worker’s Center.