Zac Hoffman to has been a hospitality professional for over 12 years, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and he currently serves as the Executive Vice President of the DC Bar and Restaurant Workers Alliance. He is the DC State Organizer for THIRST Group and is Commissioner-Elect for ANC 5D06 in Trinidad. You can follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.
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Over the last few days, it has become clear that the District’s COVID-19 cases are surging. We’ve seen how both the community spread and health system capacity metrics have reverted to the “red zone” — the conditions that sent us all into quarantine back in March. (N.B. Here are some metrics analysis from today. –MHC)
Recent events have emboldened some to call for extreme rollbacks to current Phase 2 regulations, specifically to close down bars and restaurants, once again, in hopes of flattening the curve. What many don’t talk about, however, is the very real crisis facing small businesses and –more pressingly– their staff. If rollbacks are necessary based on the metrics and guidance from the Department of Health, we have to understand the broader impact of that action and work collaboratively to avoid further economic damage.
This year, the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture released an economic study of the District’s nightlife industry showing it employs more than 65,000 people. Our workforce has been hit the hardest and deepest by the pandemic due in part to the fact that it is impossible for us to “work from home” in this new normal. Hospitality represents the most diverse working-class group in DC. We were devastated by the initial shutdown in March, which displaced thousands of workers overnight; thousands more followed them over the next several weeks. 156,000 claims for unemployment have been filed since March 13, clearly pointing to a very real crisis afflicting nearly 1/7th of the District’s population. Hospitality workers have faced obstacles at every turn, especially when trying to access the benefits designed to help them. Some were deemed eligible, yet are still waiting to receive their aid. In a recent DC Council hearing this September, I led the worker advocacy group, DC Bar and Restaurant Workers Alliance, in laying out the struggles our industry workers are facing. We called for the removal of DOES director Dr. Unique Morris-Hughes for gross negligence in handling the situation around Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits. As we transition into the PEUC and EB programs, workers continue to face challenges with little support. The ball has landed in Councilmember Silverman’s court as chairman of the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development and as overseer of DOES. Workers need clear and accessible benefits to make it through this pandemic. We have had to go through hell just to scrape by.
This explosion of unemployment is the tip of the iceberg. With 96% of DC’s bars and restaurants being independently owned and operated (including Black- and LGBTQ-owned), the damage being done by the failed stimulus/support packages is directly harming our diverse local business owners. The Bowser administration has tried to directly assist the nightlife economy through grants for winterization. The overall feeling among the industry is that too little is happening, way too late. PPP loans were an excellent example of a well-intended but poorly-executed form of aid. Most operators were not focused on how to pay employees, but rather on how to pay rent and buy food. There has not been any meaningful action locally or nationally to support displaced workers since the expiration of the CARES Act unemployment expansion. Little hope remains that there will be anything coming down the pipeline during the current administration in the White House.
With the phased reopening that started in June, many operators have been able to limp by, week to week, heavily focusing on takeout and delivery service. Phase 2 has seen the availability of indoor dining at 50% capacity, outdoor dining, restrictions on alcohol service as well as limited serving hours. These regulations make it impossible for operators to generate revenue at pre-pandemic levels. While some workers are back to work in either full or part-time capacity, the industry is still struggling. Many DC residents would like to believe restaurants are thriving or at least making ends meet but the reality is far from it. Calls for rollbacks are coming at the worst possible time, when no hope remains for further aid or support. Most of the public discourse focuses on the rallying cry of “shutdown,” with no mention of what else needs to happen to accompany a new shutdown order. The ripple effect caused by a massive wave of closures and continued economic depression of hospitality employees would be detrimental to the entire region.
To reintroduce the idea of a rollback, several things need to be addressed. The most critical is finding a way to supplement and expand unemployment to the displaced workers. This can’t happen without serious work to fix our current crisis with UI. Workers cannot survive on $400 a week, especially with no rent freeze or larger assistance programs that the DC government cannot promise. It’s not standard operating procedure to fully think out these kinds programs before actual problems come along. Given the current state of DOES, it feels unlikely that such changes could be managed. Without bolstering our UI and creating a stable framework to execute the rollbacks, most workers would face even more economic hardship. It would be devastating to the families struggling to survive to see their jobs simply put on hold with no regard for their survival.
An even larger concern of a second shutdown is what might happen to the jobs that disappear during that period. Operators are making hard decisions and another shutdown could push many to simply make the call to close down permanently to cut losses. During the first days of the pandemic, bars and restaurants met their first betrayal in the form of refusal to pay out business interruption insurance claims. Dwindling any hope of a smooth recovery, businesses were denied coverage by cleverly written regulations around viruses. As the DC state organizer for THIRST Group, I have organized and lobbied around legislative relief for bars and restaurants. We hope to see some movement from the DC Council soon. I’d like to give a big shoutout to Councilmember Allen for being supportive of our industry.
The courts will most likely decide the fate of the insurance companies. Meanwhile, every day is a struggle and operators continue to wonder what is the way forward. Without a sizable relief package, closures will likely continue rapidly during the winter months when in-person dining both outside and inside are historically low. The usual holiday season rush with private parties, large tables, and increased traffic will undoubtedly be a wash leaving both workers and operators with even more anxiety and stress.
Ultimately, a rollback of the regulations may be required, as the safety of the public at large has to remain the utmost priority. The Mayor and her reopen committee have strived to preserve business viability and keep the public safe. Operators have also put in considerable effort to make sure staff are as safe as possible.
One of the main X factors in all of this is the compliance of our guests. It has been a constant battle to maintain safety when so many blatantly disregard the rules. Mask-wearing apathy, aggression while enforcing table maximums, little understanding of regulations on bar seating, or hovering near a bar without a seat are common occurrences. Workers need their guests to comply and operators are forced onto the front lines of enforcement. None of this works if we can’t even agree on the acceptable behavior to allow dining in any form. Poor guest behavior this summer forced my organization DCBRWA to produce a PSA, pleading with guests to wear a mask and to take our safety seriously. You can find many testimonials on Twitter of employees and operators describing the lack of respect some diners have for the staff trying to enforce regulations set up to keep them safe and even allow dining in the first place. If this behavior doesn’t stop, it won’t matter what any of us do. Not only will rollbacks become imminent, but we all will also likely see case rates increase dramatically. We have to work together in this difficult time and do everything we can to keep each other safe. Holding each other accountable must become normalized within every aspect of our lives. We have to agree on measures needed for safety–otherwise, what’s the point?
No matter what happens, the hospitality community needs more– more help, more support, more respect. Small businesses, in general, need more. Our workforce and our contributions to the community are not replaceable and will leave a massive deficit across the District if we are allowed to fail. Workers need to be able to trust that they won’t be left out to dry and neglected by those who don’t understand our struggles. Operators can’t be allowed to lose faith that DC is here for them and appreciates their noble efforts of building up our neighborhoods with spaces of camaraderie and togetherness. Without a strong partnership between the small business community and the DC government, we are heading towards a cliff with little time left to turn away.
Support local businesses. Tip your server.