Life

Coronavirus Diaries: Scenes From a Restaurant That Just Fired Its Entire Staff

We drank the wine.

A restaurant scene, blurred, with a Coronavirus banner over it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This diary is written by Anna Bradley-Smith, a writer and restaurant worker in New York.

Last night, like thousands of restaurant workers all over New York City, I was called to a staff meeting during which I was laid off, along with all my colleagues.

We raided the fridge together for the perishables, loading bags with short rib, broccolini, whole branzinos, and panna cotta. We debated if butter would last out the quarantine, if the cheese was worth taking. We drank all the open wine.

We have no sick pay, no holiday pay, no safety net, and no income. We got a promise to rehire us whenever this crisis is under control. But promises can’t pay rent. It’s due in two weeks.

The owner made the decision a few hours before the governor directed all bars and restaurants to shutter on Monday, aside from takeout and delivery. The owner called us in to do it in person, in tears. If there were another way, she said, she would do it. But there isn’t.

That became increasingly clear over the past week, as our business dropped by more than half, shifts were cut, we sanitized the shit out of everything. Then the city ordered us to go to 50 percent capacity. Tensions rose between us and the neighborhood about whether we were being irresponsible by remaining open. People on Instagram shamed diners, then others shamed those with secure incomes able to stay at home while we had to work.

The uncertainty and neglect of the official response—city-, state-, and countrywide—was mirrored in people’s confused responses to us. To being out, to socializing, to supporting local businesses.

Our big bottle of Purell at the door was in constant use by staff and our few customers. We all contested its usefulness and snuck off to wash our hands anytime we touched something. The faint smell of Lysol permeated the server station. A customer asked me the best way to have their steak cooked to avoid the virus. One told me how nice it was to be able to sit outside with an Aperol Spritz while they worked from home.

The people who did come out tipped well. They asked how we were doing as we spaced them out around the restaurant. Someone left me a bottle of natural hand sanitizer with their check.

And here we are on Monday—more than 800,000 potentially out of work in New York alone. I have been told to file for unemployment. I don’t qualify. Even for those who do, like my partner, the site has crashed nonstop today. From what I’ve heard, no one can get through. No one knows when their next dollar will come and where it will come from, and that stress and anxiety is palpable.

I’ve worked in the service industry to get myself through university, a gap year, patching time between full-time reporting jobs, and now as I write freelance from Brooklyn. Looking around at my colleagues and thinking about all the other people I’ve worked with, I feel helpless. There are people here who are going to suffer in ways we don’t even understand yet. Evictions might be stalled in some cities, but what are people going to say to their landlords when rent is due? When are we going to be able to pay? What happens to our undocumented co-workers, who have nowhere to turn, least of all to the government?

As a foreigner on a work visa, I also don’t qualify for government assistance. I am lucky enough to have a roommate who works for a company that is paying her through this uncertainty and can cover me for now. I can shop my writing around and find other sources of income. But many of my co-workers, and so many others like me, have nothing.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to Slate Money.