Things are bleak for restaurants. More than 80% of restaurant workers are out of work statewide, per National Restaurant Association data, and the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) projects that 85% of independent restaurants could close permanently.
Dining rooms in Philly and across the U.S. have been closed for more than four months. Some restaurant owners, including Philadelphia’s Marc Vetri, are frustrated with delays in resuming indoor dining, which Health Commissioner Thomas Farley has pushed back to September 1 at the earliest.
What restaurateurs are really saying when they beg to reopen dining rooms is: It’s OK if my customers and employees get sick. This being COVID-19 we’re dealing with, that means: It’s OK if my customers and employees die.
The reduced occupancy rate in area ICUs is a sign that lockdown has helped reduce transmission, not a green light to reopen—consider increasing cases in the city and much of the region. That people are riding in airplanes and using Philly gyms is a terrifying source of concern, not a sign that maskless customers should pack dining rooms.
A chef’s instinct is to push through the pain no matter what—double shifts, sweltering kitchens, cuts, burns, hangovers—but that doesn’t work against the virus. You cannot cook, hustle, or bully your way out of COVID-19. Something tells me that health outcomes for infected workers would be bleaker than for top restaurateurs who can close multimillion-dollar deals.
Many owners are so focused on their business that they can see only two paths out of this seemingly interminable, yet entirely avoidable crisis: restaurants stay closed through the pandemic and shutter, or dining rooms reopen and everything’s fine.
This dichotomy is false. We’ve seen what happened when cities nationwide resumed service prematurely: Nashville, Baltimore, Chicago, and Atlanta, not to mention the state of California, have drastically reduced or eliminated indoor dining when cases spiked after reopening.
Meanwhile, restaurants with lower price points and more creative chefs are coming up with alternative ways to survive that don’t involve crowding jewel-box dining rooms, from Hardena’s sought-after “Not Pizza” rijsttafel boxes to South Philly Barbacoa’s People’s Kitchen, where grant funds support making thousands of meals for those in need.
Rather than embrace mass casualty from the virus, leaders of the hospitality industry should be calling—loudly and publicly—for long-term, widespread relief that allows for a truly safe reopening and supports workers, not just owners.
Philly’s own Ellen Yin, Nick Elmi, and Tyler Akin are working with the IRC to push the RESTAURANTS Act, but this moment calls for relief that goes beyond business grants, an extension of the PPP program, and tax relief. Chefs should be advocating for a nationwide social safety net that hospitality workers will benefit from without putting their lives on the line: nationwide rent and mortgage forgiveness, eviction moratoria, boosted PUA benefits, universal healthcare. With the proper support in place, restaurants could close completely or weather lower revenues from takeout-only business without endangering staff.
This requires a shift in perspective from an entrepreneur’s laser focus on achieving their own goals no matter what to a systemic view—where they’re using their power and influence to protect and support their workers, not pleading to put them in harm’s way.
Any nonchalance about the potential for loss of life due to reopening underscores what we already knew about the restaurant industry: it’s an abusive, overextended, antiquated system rooted in slavery that survives by treating employees as disposable.
At this moment, its leaders have an opportunity to radically reimagine hospitality as a true community guided by the humanity and well-being of workers.
No business is worth a human life. If chefs and owners don’t step up to protect their employees and their communities by demanding radical relief and keeping dining rooms dark until it’s safe, there’s really no hope for a just industry—and maybe restaurants aren’t worth saving after all.