For nearly 13 years, my wife and I have owned a restaurant, Le Virtù, on East Passyunk. It’s a simple Abruzzese trattoria, nothing more. We opened the restaurant as industry neophytes, and, along with loyal guests and a longtime staff, survived some heavy seas and our own steep learning curve.
But even for industry vets with decades of experience, the COVID-19 pandemic presents challenges that no restaurateur can solve. We watch with sympathy and empathy the real anguish and confusion of our fellow operators as they try to process and comply with frequently changing state and city protocols.
To us — with due respect — it all seems absurd. Without substantial governmental intervention to save small businesses and the jobs they create, plus a coherent national policy to combat the contagion’s spread, we’re all doomed.
Restaurant and bar owners are being asked to choose between our survival in the economy or public safety. Frankly, it’s a false choice. While outdoor dining, which we’ve implemented since June 12, is not without risks, it’s offered us an ephemeral lifeline. But fall and winter are coming. Indoor dining at 50% capacity might allow some establishments to survive but will mean that staffs will be decimated. No one we know in the industry believes restaurants can survive at 25% of capacity, as required in the guidelines for indoor dining released by the Wolf administration on July 15.
And with the current trends in the spread of COVID, we’re not sure how anyone could be confident about the safety of inviting guests inside. The best science so far suggests that the virus spreads more readily indoors, and in a country where testing and tracing are, at best, sad jokes, this seems a recipe for disaster. It’s not our desire to contribute to the worsening of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, risk the lives of our staff and guests, and pass the problem on to already embattled hospital workers (who, apparently, still often lack adequate PPE).
But we also don’t want to lose all we have in the world — our homes, access to health care, our retirement savings (being typical restaurateurs, our plans for a post-work reality are more conceptual than real) — or cast our staff adrift. So far, we’ve been able to retain and take care of all of them. Most have been with us for nearly or over a decade (some for our entire run). Without them, there is no Le Virtù — we’ve no intention of continuing operations without them.
From our perspective, arguments about opening inside, rates of capacity, even the morality and ethics of operating a restaurant during this pandemic have been marked by a lack of understanding and compassion for both those in the industry and local authorities charged with public safety. State and local governments are adapting in real time to a novel virus, and have struggled to address the situation without national leadership. And, right now, our republic is decapitated.
My wife and I are often frustrated with and confused by the decisions of governmental authorities, but we can empathize with the predicament these officials face. Other voices have blithely suggested that we should voluntarily close without guarantees that would help us save our livelihoods and provide for the well-being of our employees. That suggestion would mean committing business suicide and is made without any apparent understanding of or concern for the existential threats such a decision would represent. We are casually accused of concerning ourselves solely with the “bottom line” by people who seem to know little about our margins or precarity.
To us, all this debate still evades the point.
All nonessential businesses, including restaurants, should be shut down. A relief program on the scale of the post-World War II Marshall Plan should be created to ensure the survival of small businesses and their employees. Medicare should be available to everyone. Americans need to shelter in place again, seriously, the way other countries did, until the spread of the disease is slowed, hospitals can catch up, enough people are tested, and serious contact tracing can happen. Anything else is lunacy. This country can afford to do it. We fear that it won’t, and these decisions are above our pay grade. But someone in charge needs to make them, and soon.
Francis Cretarola is the owner, with his wife Catherine Lee, of Ristorante Le Virtù.