A rock and a hard place: That’s where Philly’s restaurant industry workers find themselves today, as COVID-19 case numbers surge and the city tightens dining restrictions.

“My back’s up against the wall. I have to keep this job,” said Dallas Walker Peterson, an assistant manager at Queen & Rook Game Cafe on Second Street just off of South, who’s been back at work since June.

Like many others in the industry, he worries about catching the virus and infecting others. Even though the cafe’s owner has installed air filters and provided employees PPE, Peterson said, with Philly’s positivity rate climbing above 10%, “it’s almost guaranteed, someone’s going to [mess] up at some point.”

Assistant manager Dallas Walker Peterson at Queen & Rook Game Cafe Nov. 17, 2020. The pre-coronavirus “legacy” sign is the list of groups scheduled to meet indoors at the cafe during the week everything was shut down in March. Peterson has been working again since June but collecting unemployment since the beginning of the pandemic.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Assistant manager Dallas Walker Peterson at Queen & Rook Game Cafe Nov. 17, 2020. The pre-coronavirus “legacy” sign is the list of groups scheduled to meet indoors at the cafe during the week everything was shut down in March. Peterson has been working again since June but collecting unemployment since the beginning of the pandemic.

The increasing outbreaks further jeopardize workers’ health as they wait on customers, bus tables, and spend time together in small kitchens. But the ramifications of the city’s newly imposed restrictions — banning indoor dining and further limiting outdoor dining — will almost inevitably translate to another wave of staff reductions.

“I think operators are, with a few exceptions, going to staff in the way that the business model requires, and if your revenue is off 80%, then your staff is going to look something like 20% of what it used to,” said Tyler Akin, owner of Stock restaurants in Fishtown and Rittenhouse and partner-chef at Wilmington’s Le Cavalier.

As restaurateurs absorb just how extensive and severe the pandemic’s effects will be on their businesses, workers have been coming to grips with the same. They’re wondering what might be left to come back to when, one day, it’s possible to operate normally again.

“I feel like this is really going to crush the Philly service industry, and I don’t know if it can bounce back,” said Nicole Jones, a bartender at a Callowhill restaurant who lost her job at R2L earlier in the pandemic. In the wake of Monday’s announcement, she’s looking at reduced hours at her current job, and bracing for more severe restrictions.

Nicole Jones, a bartender, suffers from fewer hours and not seeing customers during the pandemic. She is shown in her neighborhood on Nov. 17, 2020. Nicole said, “The good news is when now know what to expect from the pandemic. The bad news is that we know what to expect.”
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Nicole Jones, a bartender, suffers from fewer hours and not seeing customers during the pandemic. She is shown in her neighborhood on Nov. 17, 2020. Nicole said, “The good news is when now know what to expect from the pandemic. The bad news is that we know what to expect.”

Aila DeVowe has been a chef in Philly for over a decade. She was let go from her last post in August and has been looking for work since. “I [wasn’t] being picky and looking for chef or whatever. I was like, prep cook, I’ll take whatever," she said. “I saw, in three weeks, two jobs.”

“The jobs aren’t here, and I’m really fearful that this is going to turn into one of those ghost towns,” said Jason Evans, a former bartender at U Bar in Washington Square West.

But for some workers, the future is less concerning than the present. Unemployment benefits in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey cover up to 26 weeks. The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, for those who have exhausted federal and state benefits, extends coverage up to 13 more weeks for eligible applicants. That means workers who have been collecting benefits since the beginning of the pandemic are reaching the end of their rope.

“And that’s for people that have a full allotment,” Peterson said, acknowledging that he was much better positioned to weather this time than many of his colleagues. “That’s not even talking about the people who have any deviation from the ‘normal’ script — if anyone’s had trouble finding a job or had to take time off for whatever reason or decided to go to school or had to support kids or their parents.”

A vintage “Rocky: The Action Strategy Boxing Game” hangs in the now-closed off dining area at Queen & Rook Game Cafe, which has started shipping games out to customers to diversify its business.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
A vintage “Rocky: The Action Strategy Boxing Game” hangs in the now-closed off dining area at Queen & Rook Game Cafe, which has started shipping games out to customers to diversify its business.

“I have maybe three months where I’ll be OK financially,” said Adam, a bartender in Port Richmond who asked to be identified only by his first name. Adam collected unemployment in the beginning of the pandemic and went back to work in August, around the time the $600 weekly supplement stopped. “With no supplement, I was looking at $260 a week, and while I was in no way comfortable with the idea of going back to work during a pandemic, $260? A week? Yeah, no.”

He continued to collect partial benefits while working, because, in a pandemic environment — even at a restaurant that implemented automatic gratuity — he was clearing less in a week than he might have on a good night in the before times. With case rates climbing and customers growing more cavalier with their behavior, Adam quit at the beginning of November. He’s unsure how much longer his benefits will last, but suspects they expire sometime in January.

“I have no idea what happens now,” he said. “I laugh every time someone from the government touts unemployment rates going down when I could be considered gainfully employed enough if I make $350 a week. That’s $18K a year.”

Many of those collecting even modest unemployment benefits recognized that they were still better off than undocumented workers, who have extremely limited access to unemployment and SNAP benefits.

“Take the resources that the average documented person has, and then cut that by about 75%. And that’s what’s available for undocumented workers,” said DeVowe. “As somebody who’s helped fill out God knows how many W-2s and W-4s for all sorts of documented and undocumented workers, let me tell you: They pay taxes. They just don’t get to file for anything back.”

In the spring, various nonprofits nationwide rallied and raised funds to provide restaurant workers with grants. At a local level, there were scores of GoFundMes and fund-raisers aimed at helping workers at specific bars and restaurants, or industry workers in general. But nine months into the pandemic, wells have run dry, and donors might feel tapped out, too. Meanwhile, $1.3 billion of CARES Act money remains undistributed in Harrisburg (and will go to the state’s 60 least-populated counties unless the state legislature directs it otherwise).

The consensus seems that more action needs to be taken by government — on both fronts: helping workers and controlling the pandemic.

“The big answer is we need federal assistance," said Evans. “Is it going to put the government in debt? Yes. It’s going to happen one way or another anyway. Right now, people are dying — and I hate to boil it down to this, but there’s a quarter of a million people that won’t be paying taxes anymore.”

“It kind of sounds counterintuitive,” said Jones, “but there needs to be a little bit higher restriction, because there are people out there that aren’t taking everything seriously, and that’s what’s perpetuating the problem.”