In September 2008, I started work at a tiny independent bookstore on New York’s Upper East Side, a neighborhood dominated then and now by money and people who had it. On September 29, the stock market crashed. The rest of New York City looked normal — trains full, restaurants buzzing, parks lively. But the bookstore was a void. I think about that moment a lot now, that desolate day, and the ones that followed, spent standing at the counter, dread mounting that something had not gone wrong but very, very wrong, and only the money people knew it. Most of the reverberations of the 2008 financial crisis would not be felt for weeks, months, years. By chance, I was on the absolute bleeding edge of the disaster. The empty bookshop was prophecy.
Right now, people working at virtually every restaurant in America are suffering a more brutal dread, one laced with a threat not only to their wages, but to their health. After a horrific weekend for owners and workers alike, afraid both of what it would mean to not be busy and what would happen if customers came in carrying the virus, the Great Shutdown is unfolding, and absolutely no one knows what happens next.
America’s pandemic crisis is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed yet. A shelter-in-place order is now in effect for San Francisco, and bans on public gatherings of all types and sizes are rolling out across the country at a relentless pace. In New York and Los Angeles this weekend, people were still out and about, maybe out of a mistaken belief that they needed to support local businesses by going out more than everyone else in their community, maybe out of a desire for oblivion. Those with salaried middle-class jobs are worrying about toilet paper and the stock market and whether loved ones will get sick. But for many, the longer-term consequences, especially the economic ones, are still abstract. Soon they won’t be.
If health care workers are the first to sound the alarm on the grave threat the novel coronavirus presents to our health, restaurant workers are the first to warn us about the threat it presents to our economy. The financial crisis took months to pulverize the restaurant industry in 2008 and 2009, closing places through a cruel, gradual attrition. But now, restaurants in major cities across America are shuttering all at once in a matter of days, with no sense of when they will reopen, or if they even can.
And there’s little sign of help. The boldest action on the parts of government includes eviction bans and more funding for paid sick leave and relaxed liquor regulations. What do these regulations offer an undocumented dishwasher who just got laid off, beyond the hope that his landlord might not demand four months’ back rent in due time? What do they offer business owners trying to keep their employees employed, beyond hope for a fraction of the revenue needed to pay for rent, supplies, and staff? Restaurants are suffering from this pandemic because they’re the center of communal life in America, but the awful cascade of consequences lays bare how broken American life has become. American restaurant culture is a glorious public-works project, like a train station or a bridge, built during more prosperous times; its rusting supports and cracked concrete would have been tough but possible to fix oh, any time, for decades. But no one did. And now, the earthquake has come.
Without major and unprecedented government intervention and responsible community support, independent food culture could go the way of the neighborhood pharmacy and department store in the wake of this pandemic. In high-rent neighborhoods in American cities, the transition is already underway, with high-rent blight stuffing neighborhoods with chains, fancy and otherwise. And as restaurants go, so will independent stores of all kinds, whether it’s repair shops or clothing stores or bookstores like the one I worked in, which are now struggling to survive and temporarily laying off staff. Any retail that’s not a grocery store is in serious danger. In the aftermath of the Great Shuttering, without help, the only operators with capital to reopen will be the same massive corporations whose irresponsible treatment of their workers is threatening to worsen the outbreak.
Some financial projections predict a painful spring, but maybe a swift rebound in the next two quarters. Or, things could get much worse. Entire sectors of the American economy are shutting down, the same sectors that employ working-class people with no safety net. This time, the money people aren’t feeling the blow first. The working people are. But the government’s response so far has focused on big corporations; the White House’s call with the restaurant industry was a roster of America’s biggest chains. The same way bailouts for banks didn’t save people’s homes, or tariff bailouts went to rich farmers and mom and pops, post-pandemic relief might help only corporations who don’t deserve our pity. If government response doesn’t help dishwashers and small family businesses now, what will happen when the rest of us need it? When public life can resume, who will have the money to resume it?
What’s happening to restaurants right now is a tragedy, and even worse, a preventable one. Those who work in the restaurant world, and those who love it, are experiencing a genuine sense of grief as communal life in America is on hold, and the places we’ll need most to rebuild it are in danger of disappearing for good. That grief will only compound as the cases of COVID-19 rise, and those in the industry get sick. The swiftness and brutality of the industry’s breakdown is also a dire warning. Watching that empty shop floor in 2008, I worried I wouldn’t be able to keep my job at my bookstore; I didn’t dream the financial crisis would stunt the futures of two generations. Now, the immediate fears are even more wrenching, both for those whose entire industry is shutting down and for the cooks, delivery workers, and grocery workers risking stress and illness on the pandemic’s new front lines. Livelihoods and lives are at risk — and without dramatic action, we will needlessly lose far too many of both.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent