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Inside the Hostage Crisis of America’s Dying Restaurants

Covid-19 rates are spiking, debts are mounting, and workers and owners are trapped in a hell of Congress’s making.


Dave was walking to work in one of Pittsburgh’s hippest neighborhoods, past the shuttered artisan candle shops and clothing boutiques that sell overpriced vintage workwear, when he noticed the sobbing. He couldn’t register the noise at first, perhaps even attributing it to someone else, but soon felt the unmistakable scratch of his vocal chords as he wept. He slid into an alleyway to hide between two buildings and called his partner, who thought he’d been mugged, or perhaps hit by a car, but no. Dave was having what he and doctors later recognized as a panic attack triggered by a return to work just two months after he’d contracted a case of Covid-19 that put him in the hospital. He went home and stayed there for days, sullen. “I got into this to make martinis, listen to people, maybe make someone smile,” Dave, who asked I only use his first name, said of his career as a bartender. “Now, all of a sudden I’m on the front lines of a pandemic?”

In a different posh neighborhood a couple miles southeast, another bar sat mostly empty. A half-capacity limitation had been ordered by the state, and patrons were still unsure of the safety of returning. The Harris Grill, a Shadyside staple since 2004, had already lost its sister location in Mount Washington due to financial losses brought on by the pandemic lockdown. “I was looking at numbers for a weekend like, Holy shit, we did great,” Rodney Schwartz, part of the restaurant’s ownership group, told me. “And these are numbers that, in a normal December, I’d be like, Jesus Christ, why are we failing so badly?” Cash reserves are depleted, and there’s still no official help on the way to supplant Payment Protection Program loans that have long been spent. “I’ve got a convection oven I’m holding together with duct tape,” Schwartz said, the smirk nearly audible as he describes leaning against the door to keep the heat in while entrees are cooking. “Getting someone out here to repair that is gonna be a thousand bucks, and I don’t have a thousand extra bucks right now.”

In the absence of uniform policy prescriptions and robust federal aid, states and localities are left cobbling things together with wildly incoherent mandates, like leaving indoor dining open while shuttering public schools. Even with dining open in some capacity, independently owned bars and restaurants are on life support. Despite an effective early effort, Pennsylvania’s governor’s office is rebutting reports that a new shutdown is on the way, maybe owing to the state’s terror at facing yet another lawsuit after a Trump-appointed judge ruled its initial March shutdown unconstitutional. 

Just hours after his office denied the report of another shutdown, Governor Tom Wolf tested positive for the coronavirus. Our year, while tragic, has not been lacking in irony. But schadenfreude is cold comfort when people are dying and drowning in accumulated debts—with workers and owners alike drowning in back rent—and wondering how they’re going to make it through a pandemic winter. So what’s supposed to happen now, as restaurant owners face the existential crisis of the end of an industry and workers are left serving chicken wings to untraced strangers while the body count rises? 

The interests of restaurant owners and restaurant workers are often presented as divergent—one gunning to stay open, the other desperate to stay closed—and of course, they often are. But it’s also reasonable to see them, at least temporarily in the current crisis, as being on the same side of a lose-lose situation: Both need money to survive, and both were badly failed by the institutions meant to keep them safe. Keeping in step with its most consistent theme since the 2010 midterms, Congress has once again favored gridlock and posturing around optics over effective aid. It’s easy to blame state governments for the current mess (and, to be sure, they are bungling things in their own way), but the main culprit is an inadequate federal relief effort. 

Call it the trickle down of bad incentives: The Cares Act was an unprecedented stimulus, but it was structured in such a way that states facing massive shortfalls during the pandemic had no real way to fix things long term—a thumb in the leaky dam instead of a complete repair. That means the only ethical, safe route to real public safety—shutting it all down—is untenable. In the rush to make things go back to normal, state and federal governments ignored the fact—willfully or out of desperation—that without a vaccine, there was no safe way to reopen. So states and localities threw open their doors, some gleefully because it made the president happy; others because they were backed into a corner. That left restaurant owners and workers in a particularly desperate situation. They are not the same struggles, but they are, at the very least, both part of the same hostage situation engineered by the people we’ve elected to be in charge of these kinds of things.

According to trade data from Nation’s Restaurant News, nearly one in five restaurants in America have closed “either permanently or long-term” since the pandemic began, and Pennsylvania is a microcosm of everything going wrong with the industry. Across the state, restaurants and bars are allowed to remain open, including for indoor dining, but with only 50 percent capacity. People on both sides of the owner-worker divide, at least those being honest, will tell you it’s an atrocity that completely ignores the realities of an extremely infectious virus. (Covid spread doesn’t care much that you only took off your mask for a bite of cheeseburger.)  The risks also far outweigh any kind of financial stabilizing impacts: Even at full capacity and without the worst pandemic in 100 years, it’s a business with slim margins and an ever-looming danger of closure. And mask mandates, while important as guidelines, are only as enforceable as the job security of bartenders and servers who encounter those who refuse to put them on. 

The restaurant owners I spoke to for this story all told similar tales of how things played out post-shutdown in March: Layoffs and furloughs with the first spike to minimize payroll and set people up quickly to receive unemployment; then, a pivot to takeout and delivery services with varying success, either through third-party apps that cannibalize their already thin margins or their own proprietary services; then came outdoor dining and an arms race to build the necessary infrastructure to accommodate it. 

Workers, though, were less likely to celebrate these reopenings. Even as risks for diners were being minimized (in theory, at least), the people on staff were still facing real danger in the back of house and on their commutes. The money just wasn’t the same, either. Dave returned to work in June to find that his hourly wage, which had been raised significantly during the delivery-only period to account for lost tips, was back to its place below the minimum wage. However, unlike before, at 50 percent capacity (and often much less, as customers were hesitant to return), his tips were meager even on a good night. “I was basically being paid half as much for more work,” he said, noting that while traffic was lighter, so was the staff, meaning his list of responsibilities had grown. Now, after trying to go back on that day in September, he’s stuck at home after a 10-year career in the industry, afraid to go near a bar again as the mental strain of being hospitalized twice in three months lingers.

Dave is a fairly extreme example, but there’s no shortage of things that can go wrong for workers like him. Service industry jobs are disproportionately worked by people of color, who are currently suffering the highest infection and death rates of the pandemic. Meanwhile, these jobs are still down 25 percent from their pre-pandemic levels, and many of them may be gone forever. Most are struggling through it, perhaps taking the odd week off here and there to gather their fortitude if they’re able to take any time at all. Then it’s back to work for another shift of serving complete strangers whose adherence to coronavirus guidelines and restrictions is only enforced by the honor system. They know they are, through a simple numbers game as infection rates rise, serving sick people, just as the owners know that sick people are coming through their doors. That’s the hell of the present moment, and the people in power created it. 

“We’re the arts program of the state budget,” said Joey Hilty, chef and owner of The Vandal, a fine-dining spot in Lawrenceville. The Vandal has not resumed indoor dining, instead opting to go takeout-only to protect the safety of its workers. He’s observed something darker in the government’s refusal to step in and help independent restaurants: At the end of the day, it’s about what industries contribute to the state’s bottom line, and independent restaurants are a drop in the bucket. “I’m a realist about this stuff. What value do we really create, at least from their view?” 

Hilty is taking the long view, imagining the ways that the pandemic may upend the industry in general. “How much of this trauma are people going to associate with us?” he asked rhetorically, thinking about the future, when vaccinations have been properly administered and life is allowed to return to whatever normal is after this. Will they come rushing back? Trickle in slowly? Turn away forever? And that’s to say nothing of how lagging traffic may impact the way front-of-house labor sees its role in the industry: If there are fewer people, there are fewer tips. “I think most progressive places will find ways to do hourly wages or equitable tip pooling, but that’s always been controversial in the industry,” Hilty said. 

In the meantime, everyone is just hoping they make it. Schwartz notes that, as cash reserves are lost, it will likely take over a year once it’s safe to operate normally for him to assess a timeline for returning to the business’s financial position from before the pandemic. This isn’t just about surviving until vaccination. Restaurants aren’t cash-rich businesses to begin with, and the slightest setback with a weakened financial foundation could mean closure. “Even if you’re successful, it won’t feel good,” Hilty told me. “If I make it through this, I still lost, like, all of my staff. As an employer, you’re responsible for their livelihoods, and I cared about those people. Hopefully, you get some of them back, but that doesn’t feel good at all.” 

Workers face a similar dilemma, but without the benefit of just being able to cut their losses and shut it all down once debts reach insurmountability. Americans owe back-rent and are facing eviction, private loans (which account for just shy of 10 percent of all student debt) are still due and are either being paid or accumulating additional interest and fees while in forbearance, and the swine of the somehow-still-legal payday loan industry are having an even easier time. The working class has always been at the bottom of the Great American Pyramid Scheme, and it would serve lawmakers well to remember that as they look beyond the immediate relief toward postpandemic financial security—assuming, of course, that it isn’t the whole system they’re trying to preserve in the first place.

From the beginning, the delusion of American individualism and the angst of an uncertain end date have blocked hordes of people from realizing or acknowledging that there is only one safe way to do this. We need to pay people to stay home. We need to pay businesses to stay closed. We need to cancel rent, cancel mortgage payments, and take in the unhoused. To do otherwise is to create arbitrary distinctions that a deadly virus simply does not give a fuck about as the bodies pile up at the feet of our neglectful representatives.   

Nobody asked for this, not the pandemic and not a government that wants to let people die. The moral thing to do would be to close restaurants, but there is no ethical or moral way to exist in America, no incentive to do the right thing. The patrons gathered in the restaurant are at once at fault and heroic, helping to inject cash into struggling businesses and into the pockets of bartenders while helping to worsen the pandemic. And in the middle of the owners and the patrons are the servers and back of house workers, at once reliant on and traumatized by it all because to do otherwise is to willingly surrender your well-being to the whims and rotted institutions of a society that’s become a parody of cruelty. Nasty systems produce nasty incentives. We’re all trapped in some version of it. To survive here is to participate in systemic inequity and hope that nobody notices.