This week, we made the sad and complicated decision to close our restaurant, Le Virtù, for the foreseeable future. We plan to be back in 2021, but our first priority is helping our staff navigate Pennsylvania’s byzantine unemployment system, so they can stay safe and whole during the tough days ahead, and return to work when we’re ready. They are the restaurant. This isn’t the first time we’ve shut down during the pandemic, but everything feels more fraught this time around.
I’m not alone in my fears. The condition of the city’s restaurant industry is poignantly expressed in the faces of our colleagues. There’s a heartbreaking, haunted quality in the eyes of many friends, workers, and owners alike: the look of hopelessness, of people who know they’ve been abandoned. I wish I could tell them they’re wrong. But that would be a lie.
There’s no relief coming, no rescue ship on the horizon.
The city has imposed understandable restrictions but offers no aid. The commonwealth’s remaining $1.3 billion from the CARES act — not quite the Hail Mary pass many of us were hoping for but something we desperately needed — will instead, at the insistence of GOP lawmakers, go to closing the budget hole. The HEROES Act, the real remedy that would allow (through the Payroll Protection Program) owners to keep our staffs paid, intact — but at home — and our taxpaying businesses viable languishes on Mitch McConnell’s desk. It passed the House months ago. The HEROES Act is precisely what the situation demands, not only for restaurants but for all small businesses and the country as a whole: economic security for workers and businesses, and public safety. That it didn’t pass weeks ago reeks of depravity, a failure of conscience.
Restaurant owners and workers are pawns in a game most of us have no chance of winning and the purpose of which eludes us.
The indifference to our plight isn’t confined to the halls of Congress. Our society as a whole seems unwilling to take on real sacrifice. People don’t want to put off getting what they want, when they want it. People pine for pre-pandemic pleasures, consequences be damned, even as doctors and nurses make heart-wrenching pleas for caution, wearing masks, and social distancing.
I know few people in the biz, employees or owners, who were sanguine about the prospects of indoor dining during the pandemic. Most of the folks we know were terrified by the idea. Owners were given the choice of economic ruin or a Hunger Games-like experiment in survival. Even at 50% of capacity, it’s doubtful that many of your favorite places would have survived or been able to keep their staffs intact.
Much of the potential clientele wanted no part of going indoors. They’d read the same articles we’d read, studied the data, maybe knew someone who died horribly or got terribly sick, and preferred to dine outdoors (if they dined out at all -- many didn’t) until winter and then hunker down until the situation and/or weather improved. Many colleagues reported empty sections in their recently reopened dining rooms. At my restaurant, we refused to open our dining rooms for these reasons, and mostly because our staff wanted no part of it.
For many inside the service industry, this entire situation feels like bullying.
Employees in this situation probably never realized they’d signed on for a potentially life-and-death mission. They’ve got bills to pay and sometimes live on the edge. Many had little choice but to serve in potentially dangerous dining rooms. Access to health care is spotty. The costs of hospitalization and care in the United States are astronomical. And COVID-19, when it sinks its teeth into you, doesn’t mess around. A long hospital stay fighting the virus will most likely mean financial ruin for many industry workers. The cost to your server of delivering your plate of pasta or burger in these circumstances might be death, destitution, and/or long-term disability.
The remedy is comprehensive relief: more Payroll Protection Program money so we can retain staff and spare them economic hardship; low-interest loans and deferments so we can keep our creditors at bay (and our tax-contributing businesses can survive); easy access to free testing with speedier results; expanded Medicare for the uninsured who do get sick; coherent and comprehensive contact tracing; and free vaccines whenever those become available. It won’t be fun, fast, or cheap. But it’s reality, if we want to limit human suffering and death and save jobs and businesses.
Even if such relief becomes available, it’s already too late for many businesses, including some that haven’t yet shuttered permanently: Many of us are “dead men walking.”
We’ve watched the city shrug its collective shoulders as beloved joints go dark. There’s only so much suffering it can process.
The places that have closed for good, and those that will close in the days ahead — probably not the famous and anointed halls that will always attract enough of a crowd, but the mom-and-pop joints, the places that help define and sustain certain neighborhoods, that provide some of the city’s connective tissue — will leave a devastating void in this city, whether we realize it or not.
Francis Cretarola is the owner, with his wife, Catherine Lee, of Ristorante Le Virtù.