Coronavirus infections are spiking uncontrollably. Hospitals are over capacity. The public doesn’t understand which activities are safe, and city and state officials vaguely warn that worse is yet to come. Is this November 2020 or March? The brutal, live-wire uncertainty of the pandemic’s first wave was a shock, but it spurred millions to adopt restrictions, driven by a sense of solidarity and fear. That shock has passed, and in its place creeps a nihilistic dread. Now, everyday people and essential healthcare workers alike are in the same place: overwhelmed, emotionally deadened, and burnt out.
In restaurants, the consequences of the death spiral of pandemic mismanagement are glaringly obvious, and speak to a larger breakdown in public life. Independent restaurant owners across America have been asked to take on unimaginable financial and health risks to keep their businesses open, and now, eight months into the pandemic, another shutdown could render those months of struggle moot. During the first round of reopening, restaurant owners bled cash and limped along: sinking PPP loans into hiring back staff; installing new ventilation systems for indoor dining that never returned; investing in elaborate outdoor dining setups; and even generating entirely different menus in hopes of drawing in customers. Now, in much of the country, the winter weather is cutting off outdoor dining just as rising case counts make indoor dining dangerous; even in warm Los Angeles, the city just cut outdoor dining capacity by 50 percent. For restaurant owners, their money is gone, their will is sapped, and there are no options left.
For restaurant workers, the situation is even worse. Those still going to work face a daily threat of sickness, and watch firsthand as their workplaces teeter on the brink of collapse because many people, rightfully, don’t want to dine out during a pandemic. Those out of work who are eligible for benefits saw their relief checks disappear on July 31; unemployment benefits will completely run out for many Americans the day after Christmas. Restaurant workers without documents never received benefits at all and have been getting by through patchwork charity and mutual aid operations.
The worst part is? None of this is a surprise, all of this was avoidable, and since March, the solution has been abundantly clear: Restaurants and the people who work in them need a bailout. There is no solution that’s not a bailout. Landlords won’t offer rent relief. Outdoor dining doesn’t work in the winter. Diners will not put on their masks between bites. And who are we even reopening for? Bill Clark, the co-owner of Meme’s, a Brooklyn restaurant so beloved there were lines around the block after it announced its closure, put it succinctly: “There should have been help. There should have been pay for people to stay home, there should have been pay for business to survive and stay closed until it was safe to [open] again.”
So where is the help? Why are the restaurants open, and the schools closed? Across the world, from Australia to Taiwan to Norway, countries have used tighter border controls, aggressive contact-tracing, and targeted lockdowns to drive down their infection rates. In European countries struggling with outbreaks like France and Germany, the government is still paying businesses, largely restaurants, forced to close. The stalled-out HEROES Act contains provisions for grants for small businesses, but no one knows how they will work, or when the bill might be passed. Restaurants most in need of help get by on the tightest of margins; many are immigrant-owned. The United States of America is a rich country. Is all the money going to fighter jets? Even if you are a fan of fighter jets, even if Top Gun is your favorite movie, is it really worth having the jets and not the dive bar where Maverick and Goose bang out “Great Balls of Fire”? Don’t politicians want small-town diners to campaign in? The diners have done so much for them — why won’t they save them now?
What’s most frustrating about the endless delay of aid is that the measures designed to save the diners will also save lives. Business owners won’t want to close if it means losing their business. But with the numbers where they are and Thanksgiving on the way, the risks of keeping restaurants open grow great. Indoor dining works only under highly controlled circumstances; when cases are spiking, outdoor dining isn’t necessarily safe; working in these establishments is the most dangerous of all. With two working vaccines and likely more on the way, the end of the pandemic is in sight. Once everyone is vaccinated, the first thing people are going to want to do is eat at a restaurant. It’s time to save the lives, and the shreds of American public life, while we still can. So, let’s try this again: Bail out restaurants, and pay people to stay home. It’s already months too late, and we can’t afford to wait any longer.