Restaurant workers out of jobs again as virus surges anew

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Bartender Kellie Mottiqua prepares drinks at Bridgetown Taphouse in Ambridge, Penn. Earlier in the day Gov. Tom Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine announced a series of orders and advisories, including a stay-at-home advisory, and an order suspending all alcohol sales in bars, restaurants or catered events during the night before Thanksgiving. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

Waiters and bartenders are being thrown out of work – again – as governors and local officials shut down indoor dining and drinking establishments to combat the nationwide surge in coronavirus infections that is overwhelming hospitals and dashing hopes for a quick economic recovery.

And the timing, just before the holidays, couldn’t be worse.

Restaurant owner Greg Morena in Los Angeles County was trying to figure out his next step after county officials banned in-person dining for at least three weeks, beginning Wednesday. But he was mainly dreading having to notify his employees.

“To tell you, ‘I can’t employ you during the holidays’ to staff that has family and kids, I haven’t figured that part out yet. It’s the heaviest weight that I carry,” said Morena, who had to close one restaurant earlier in the year and has two in operation at the Santa Monica Pier.

Randine Karnitz, a server in Elk River, Minnesota, said her boss laid her off last week after Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced that bars, restaurants and gyms would close for four weeks as infections spiked to an all-time high and pushed hospitals to the breaking point.

“‘Well, your last day is tomorrow. You don’t have a job. You can thank your governor for that,” Karnitz said her boss told her. She said her husband’s hours also have been cut at his manufacturing job, forcing the family to postpone house repairs.

Karnitz, though, said that she supports a shutdown and that people who didn’t take the virus seriously bear much of the blame.

“I just think that if we all would’ve done our part to begin with, we wouldn’t be in this predicament,” she said. “Things are only going to get worse for the service industry before it gets better, unfortunately.”

Restaurant owners — most of whom underwent shutdowns in the spring and summer — are finding the new round of closings challenging as colder weather sets in. Many are offering curbside pickup but also trying to hold outdoor dining, even if it means setting up shelters or heaters.

Some are challenging shutdown orders in court, with little success.

A federal judge last week declined to halt a three-week ban on indoor dining in Michigan after an industry association complained that restaurants were being treated unfairly. The judge noted that restaurants are unlike other businesses in that their customers have to remove their masks to eat or drink.

A California judge on Monday denied a request to temporarily restore indoor service at restaurants and gyms in San Diego County that were forced to move operations outside. The judge said there is scientific evidence to support Gov. Gavin Newsom’s sweeping public health orders.

The U.S. has seen more than 12.4 million confirmed infections and over 258,000 deaths from the coronavirus. Almost 86,000 people — an all-time high — were in the hospital in the U.S. with COVID-19 as of Monday.

The infections have led to a shortage of hospital beds and health care workers, and they threaten non-COVID-19-related surgeries and other care.

On average, the U.S. is recording over 172,000 new cases per day. It is seeing more than 1,500 deaths per day on average — the highest level since May.

Restaurant owners in Los Angeles County contend infections are more likely to be coming from private gatherings where rules about masks and spaced-apart seating aren’t in force.

“The same people desperate to go to bars are going to party in their houses,” said Brittney Valles, owner of Guerrilla Tacos in Los Angeles. “You will never see them until they’re spreading coronavirus around willy-nilly. It’s insane.”

Valles said she broke down Saturday as she realized it could be the last time — at least for a while — that she would see some of her employees. It will be the third time she has had to furlough employees, and she was working Monday to develop a plan to keep as many employed as possible.

She has already opened a coffee shop that offers breakfast burritos. She plans to expand those hours, continue to operate the taco business for lunch takeout and open a burger joint at night that would deliver meals and offer food to go.

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