ONEAs the Pennsylvania legislature draws to a close, Harrisburg has the option to use a portion of its remaining $ 1.3 billion in CARES Act funds to provide financial stability to stakeholders in the state restaurant industry. Instead, lawmakers appear to have decided to transfer all of the funds to balance the budget, leaving restaurant owners and employees (as well as salon owners, hospitals, social workers, and a host of others) to fend for themselves.
At the same time, Governor Tom Wolf and Minister of Health Dr. Rachel Levine added restrictions to an already highly regulated restaurant landscape. While the measures are right to be science-based and in the best interests of public health as viral loads increase and people are tempted to congregate for the holidays, they also tighten the noose in the restaurant industry.
Can the restaurants in Pittsburgh and the people who work in them survive what is likely to be a long, dark winter without help?
Restaurant workers – the chefs, waiters, bartenders, dishwashers, and others who make the rest of us happy – are among the people who are suffering the most right now. Between communicating directly with people who work in Pittsburgh restaurants and what I’ve seen on social media, I realize that this is an economic and psychological hotspot. People who have invested time building their careers have taken a tough break, and a growing number are considering leaving the profession altogether.
Often times, when in action, servers and hosts are the people in charge of enforcing public health mandates, and this has sometimes been answered with hostile pushback. Even in facilities where customers do the bare minimum, e.g. For example, when wearing a mask while going to their table or to the toilet, the servers are at risk of exposure to the coronavirus, as eating and drinking are inherently maskless activities. This is mentally demanding, no matter how many precautions you take. Due to the unfair financial structure of the tilted minimum wage, front-of-house workers remain at the customer’s for most of their wages (and there are far fewer of them right now). Restaurant workers do not have the option to say no when they are recalled to a job that feels unsafe because they lose what scarce unemployment benefits are offered to them if they do.
It’s annoying to see a few restaurant owners, including some I used to respect, breaking the rules. I am writing this with a sense of empathy and understanding that almost everyone who owns a restaurant tries to do their best to keep the doors open for as long as possible. But for those who disregard the guidelines because they believe COVID-19 is like the flu, do you believe that the short-term gain you made from a moment of so-called protest is now worthwhile as we are in a are in a deeper situation? , far worse second wave? Would you like to refuse to disclose that you are shutting down – or worse, not shutting down – when COVID outbreaks in your facilities are acceptable?
I have great respect for the owners who do their best to stay afloat, to be transparent, to take care of the staff and to follow the rules. They have spent the past eight months pouring money into overheads like groceries, rent, and utilities, and experiencing the psychological damage of laying people off while wondering what the next round might be and how soon it will come. People see their integrity.
So what can we do
Of course, let your favorite restaurants take you away again and again. If you haven’t already done so, ask yourself which institutions you haven’t thought of, especially BIPOC and owned institutions, and support them too. Try to find places that buy their ingredients from local farmers and ranchers so you can keep as much money as possible in the local food system. Work to support places that support their employees. Tip at least 5 percent more than you think you should.
But that’s just a patch, even if it’s a nice one for everyone involved.
What restaurants need is immediate, targeted financial relief. Swift legislative action needs to be taken to pay restaurant and bar owners to remain closed or partially closed for local consumption and to function primarily as takeaways. The Pennsylvania legislature is still in session for a few days and it is not too late to call your representatives. More importantly, we need to put pressure on the federal government to support the Restaurants Act, which grants grants to independent restaurant, bar and catering entrepreneurs to cover the projected differences in revenue in 2020 from 2019. That money could be used to cover payroll, supplies, and rent, among other applications. All restaurant workers who have lost their jobs to COVID-19 or who do not want to expose themselves to the risk of contracting should have the financial security to stay home safely for the duration of the crisis.
I love Pittsburgh restaurants and bars. I love hanging out with groups of friends who get noisy at Chengdu Gourmet, and I love sitting alone with a book and eating grilled cheese and fries at Ritter’s Diner in the late evening. I love food ventures that take me to places like Ladybird’s Luncheonette and Back To The Foodture, and how these restaurants were as good as I hoped they would be. I like the way Spork pushes its boundaries each year and how Bitter Ends Luncheonette encourages local farmers to do their best in each growing season. I love the ups and downs, meeting friends, having casual conversations, on Sunday evenings at Apteka and Allegheny Wine Mixer. I love cocktails at Tinas and karaoke at Bob’s Garage. I love the glow I feel in Dish Osteria and Bar, the place where you feel at home with those fresh sardines and that bowl of Rigatoni alla Scamorza on the copper bar. I miss all of this very much. I bet you see your favorite places the same way.
There is hope on the horizon with at least three safe and effective vaccines, but it will be some time before we get back to something that is close to normal. According to public health recommendations, facilities should have the option to remain open if they wish to dine al fresco. But that’s not very convenient in Pittsburgh in the winter, and all of those igloos, yurts, and other walled structures are just indoor eateries with a different name. Given the dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, eating indoors, even with partial capacity, is just a bad idea right now. Perhaps it won’t be like that again in the not too distant future. Given a sufficiently large segment of our population rooted in a misguided, recalcitrant belief that sticking to some basic public health practice is a socialist system of state control, or whatever the fantasy of the day, it doesn’t seem like whether we will be able to manipulate the virus without significantly changing the perspective that caring for strangers is as important as taking care of ourselves. House parties and other large indoor gatherings also set us back.
Even if we are all fed up with it, we must all do it in order to adhere to public safety best practice. We’re in it together and together we can do our part to keep the restaurants and bars in Pittsburgh alive.