On Feb. 1, Michigan allowed restaurants to reopen for indoor dining — welcome news for many restaurant owners and service industry workers who have been hit hard by the economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, not every owner or worker was ready to jump at the opportunity to get back to work.
interviewed owners and workers for a recent story
about why they didn't want their restaurants to reopen just yet. We got more responses than we could fit it one article, so we're including the rest here. These have been lightly edited and condensed for space, and anonymity has been granted to some in exchange for candor.
A former Detroit bartender who quit during the pandemic
Quite simply, it is stupid as fuck.
First of all, a lot of us are in fact better off on unemployment right now with the extra federal money (this would not be the case without it). I was getting $258 a week, but with the extra $300 it was $558 a week. This is definitely less than what I usually made bartending ($700-900/week in the before times) but frankly I don’t believe it is possible to make “normal” money now. After reopening in the summer, the best anyone could hope to make was probably $200-300/week. Even without any restrictions, business is still way down because believe it or not, a majority of people are not going out. Not great for a tips-based business. I have a friend who worked a 13-hour shift in downtown Ferndale over the summer and left with less than $50. Meanwhile in the pre-COVID times I could barely get a table at that place.
Which brings me to my next issue: the people who are going out are some of the worst customers
. They used to be an every-once-in-awhile thing, but it’s the nice people who are the ones following rules and staying home, so it feels like there’s so many more of them now. They flout safety rules because they’re the people who see service workers as subhuman, and ask “why don’t you get a real job?” (Bruh, I was making good money with the ability to take extended time off to travel, I was living the dream as a bartender pre-COVID!) Or they’re the COVID-deniers who say “if you want a tip pull down your mask so I can see your face.” That has not personally happened to me but I’ve heard enough people complain about it to know it’s real, and I thought that was straight horrible. I myself had a drunk maskless lady follow me into the kitchen over the summer to complain about “not getting her food.” Well I can’t carry six plates at a time, Karen. I came back here to get yours, but thanks for spreading your germs all over everyone else’s food because you’re impatient and can’t understand I’m not a fucking octopus and I only got two hands! With these being the people you’re serving, the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 is just that much higher.
But despite all this, my biggest issue is we’re reopening right as people much smarter than me are saying things are about to get way worse, worse than ever, with these new virus variants
. Why are we doing this, and for who? When I saw [former health department director] Robert Gordon resigned the day restaurant reopening was announced
, I knew this was a political decision and not a science-based one, especially since everyone’s been tight-lipped
about that departure. And it’s a political decision that doesn’t benefit workers, just owners who don’t have to put themselves in harm’s way.
Restaurant workers are probably some of the MOST exposed (nobody ever puts their mask back on when you come to the table — ever) and they’re not in line for a vaccine? What the fuck? Meanwhile I can get a vaccine right now through my new office job, where I sit in an room that’s not open to the public with only 2-3 other women, all wearing masks all day, over six feet apart and in separate cubicles. Plus I get to work at home one day a week. I’m thankful for my good fortune and I plan to take advantage of it, but tell me how is this fair or equitable?
Which brings me to my last point... holy shit everyone in the bar/restaurant industry has been getting COVID. Probably because we can’t stay safe! Personally, when my place was reopen over the summer we had a scare or confirmed case about every six to eight weeks. And numbers were down in the summer here in Michigan. This is par for the course, it’s just most places don’t inform anyone or shut down. (We did, possibly to our detriment, but it was the right thing to do.) That restaurant in Ferndale I mentioned above? Outbreak city, but they only told the public about it, shut down, and cleaned the first time. Subsequent times? Nothing. And there were subsequent times.
Despite this bitching, I actually love the industry. I’m three weeks into a “respectable” office job that utilizes my degrees (believe it or not I have a Master’s) and every day I wish I was still working at the bar. I find offices boring and stifling. I hate that I can’t take off on a three-week road trip anymore. But the bar life I miss doesn’t exist anymore, at least for now, so I have to do what I can until it does.
Seriously, restaurant workers are fucked.
An anonymous Detroit restaurant manager
I have seen almost every one of my co-workers cry in the past year while on the job.
I was asked by an owner the other day if I felt safe working and asked my staff the same. Then we realized that most of us have already had COVID. It doesn’t make a difference for us to be open at this point. We’ve already been at risk, tested positive, and gotten our families and friends sick. Still, we are not on the priority list for vaccination.
I don’t want to get sick again, but I also don’t want to see my coworkers not be able to feed their families and lose their homes. In my mind, at this point, with so little help from our employers or our government, that risk is worse than the health risk.
An anonymous bartender from the suburbs
I'm a bartender in a dive bar in [redacted]. My daughter has high-risk disabilities. A virus in January 2020 (possibly COVID-19) nearly killed her. She's been distance learning since March 2020. I can't send her back, or restart any services, until she's vaccinated.
Tia Fletcher, owner of Hamtramck bar Bumbo's
I don’t see taking the risk for the slowest/coldest month of the year to juggle a nine-person capacity, after making it this far. The health and wellbeing of the people I serve, my employees, and myself are more important to me than opening so close to the finish line. Each business has to do what they’ve got to do to survive, so no judgements here as long as people are prioritizing safety, it just doesn’t make sense for a small place like mine.
I worked 95% of the shifts after the pandemic started. Besides it just being the right thing to do, I saw night after night how a couple drinks could revert folks back to their old, comfortable ways. Which is another reason I understood the shut down — bars and the rules of this pandemic are like oil and water and that’s really nobody’s fault.
Sales are not only down, the added expense to accommodate the situation are high. Those propane heaters are about $20 in gas every couple days [multiplied by] however many you have, etc. Which is another reason I’m not opening right now — I’d hardly be breaking even.
I’ll definitely reopen! Just not at the same time they’re asking people to wear double masks, vaccines are rolling out, and we’re not so far from spring. I love and miss my people and look forward the easing back into things thoughtfully when it makes sense.
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