More than 13,000 people in every state and the District had tested positive for the novel coronavirus as of Thursday afternoon. More than 170 people had died. The pandemic has forced an unprecedented shutdown of businesses across the nation and tens of thousands of layoffs. Many in the service industry — bartenders, restaurant servers, hotel staff, janitorial services, fitness trainers, stagehands, musicians, actors and other entertainers — were among the first to go.
When Moore reported for work Saturday night, employees indulged in gallows humor about closing as government restrictions on public gatherings increased and customers dwindled. Then came a District decree — one of many by state and local governments — ordering bars and restaurants to close except for carryout and pickup in hopes of slowing the virus’s spread through social distancing.
In a matter of days, Moore went from making as much as $400 a night in tips to $80 to zero.
“It’s just an extremely tough time as a mom of three trying to figure out how to make ends meet,” Moore, 34, said Wednesday. “I really don’t know what I’m going to do or where I’m going to turn.”
Servers and kitchen staff, many of whom have been let go with little or no notice, are now trying to figure out how to pay the rent. Some already had a side hustle, or more than one, to help pay bills that bartending and waiting tables couldn’t pay. Now, they’re looking into unemployment benefits, asking parents or relatives for help, searching for temporary gigs — almost anything will do.
Some hope for aid from the relief fund set up by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington or the “D.C. Virtual Tip Jar,” an online database that allows people to send tips to staff at various restaurants. Gratuities were a main part of a daily wage, and they were getting scarce before the shutdowns began.
“Even when we weren’t closed, like, maybe only two tables — max — came in at all, and we weren’t making tips or anything,” said Brianna Jones, 20, a server at Uncle Julio’s in Ashburn, Va. On Wednesday, the restaurant invited her and other laid-off workers to stop by the kitchen and pick up food — steak, chicken, avocados, tomatoes — that would otherwise go to waste. That was very nice, she said, but she still worries about paying next month’s rent.
The same might be said for many business owners who laid people off. Many did so as a last resort, knowing that their only hope for remaining in business was to cut staff. Some said the economic blow already seems worse than the aftershocks of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or the 2008 recession.
In response, the District has allowed bars and restaurants to defer payment of sales taxes for February and March. Hotels can also defer paying property taxes. The city also now allows pickup or delivery of alcohol from bars and restaurants so long as food is also part of the takeout order. But some wonder if that’s enough.
“I’m scrambling now, literally checking into [U.S. Small Business Administration] loans and stuff — looking at a mortgage on my house — just to cover some of these employees. They’re like family, many of them,” said William Duggan, Madams Organ’s owner. He’s put some of his kitchen staff to work rehabbing houses that he owns as real estate investments, thankful too that he owns his own building. Duggan wonders whether it’ll be enough for some businesses.
“I think there’s a tremendous amount of people who won’t make it,” Duggan said.
R. Shane Angus has been out of work since the Kennedy Center canceled shows through early May, and when there’s no work for a freelancer like him, there’s no pay.
“There’s a lot of people, too,” said Angus, 41, who has worked as a stagehand at Kennedy Center since 1998. “It’s not just union stagehands — it’s nonunion stage hands, it’s dressers, it’s musicians, it’s ticket takers, it’s ushers. I mean, everybody’s out of business.”
Some service workers have little, if any, sick leave. Others are undocumented immigrants who cannot collect unemployment benefits. A few are more fortunate, if only because spouses or partners still have paychecks and full-time jobs that allow them to work from home.
Amy Cutler, a part-time host at Lock 72 restaurant in Potomac until the place shut down, said her husband still has work but that her paycheck covered a car payment, a gym membership and other expenses. Now, she’s thinking about what she’ll have to do without.
“You just say, “Well, I won’t get my hair cut,’ ” said Cutler, 65. “I won’t, as vain as it sounds, get a massage, which therapeutically I really need.”
Others find grim comfort in knowing that so many other people share the same dire situation that business and government will have to provide relief.
“Financially, there’s going to be so many people in the same boat as me, that there’s no way they’re going to be able to hold people to task they way they normally would if they’re behind on their bills,” said Kristi Griner, 48, of Alexandria, who tended bar at the Westin Hotel’s Trademark restaurant and worked a second job as a guide for City Brew Tours until the pandemic hit. “There’s not much we can do about it.”
At Bukom Cafe in Adams Morgan, the nightclub usually rocks seven nights a week with reggae bands and dancing, its dining room filled with people eating West African fare such as egusi, a stew with goat meat, spinach and ground melon seeds.
Now the place is dead. The kitchen staff, perhaps 10 in all, were let go last week as the usual crowd vanished. Two of the owners, who used to open at 4 p.m., were there during Wednesday’s lunch hour, preparing the meals themselves in the hopes a carryout business will sustain them. But so far, the demand has been meager.
“It’s pretty devastating, actually,” said Joseph Lawson, 38, of Arlington, who owns the bar with his father and brother.
His brother, Kojo Khalil, said he was cautiously hopeful that allowing bars to make alcohol deliveries might help keep things going.
“We’re more prayerful than scared, I’d say,” said Khalil, 28, of Greenbelt. “Once you start to invoke fear, you’ve kind of given up.”