No, thank you.
The governor’s decision dismisses science in favor of throwing the economically desperate to the front lines of the fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic. The hospitality industry was already among the first to succumb to the economic wrath of the pandemic, and I, as a chef and restaurateur, refuse to have the people I employ and work with used as sacrificial lambs for an economic uptick that is far from guaranteed anyway.
I hope the governor will be getting a tasteful lower-back tattoo that says “These Veins Bleed Red” while enjoying a pedicure in a fine Spring Rhubarb shade; after all, he has a phalanx of people in personal protective equipment willing to ensure his safety, something that the rest of the citizenry has little access to.
I closed my restaurants on March 15, and what a brutal ides of March it was. I furloughed almost 100 people — wonderful cooks, chefs, waiters, dishwashers, barkeepers and hosts — all of whom I had social contracts with: to keep safe, provide for and guide, in exchange for their hard work, dedication and professionalism. I felt that we were doing our duty for the public’s health and mitigating possible spread of the virus and its disease, covid-19.
We went from having a good year to a slowing in late February, to a trickle in March, and then, with the closing, a 95 percent loss in revenue. Only a core contingent of employees remained, doing some to-go food. Rent was due, upcoming payroll was underfunded, and my own bank account was paltry. We have since been given a budget by some generous philanthropies and NGOs to keep afloat, while serving thousands of meals to essential workers and those in need. That and Paycheck Protection Program loans have made our future more possible, but nowhere near our usual financial position. Any temptation to reopen — and refill those coffers — is a chimera. Who in reality would dine out right now? For the first time in my life, I can comfortably say that now is not the time for fine dining.
The virus remains strong in Georgia. Dougherty County is still in turmoil, with one of the worst per capita infection rates in the country. Habersham County in the north is a new hot spot, doubling its cases at an alarming rate. Statewide testing for the virus is still meager. Yet my industry is being asked to open our doors to the unknown, without new health department guidelines, without safe standard practices, and without sound scientific evidence that we are ready to resume any sense of normalcy. I am confident that my restaurants will create a system of distanced hospitality with clear sanitation guidelines that can be viable in the next month, but to open so soon seems dreadfully irresponsible to my employees, my customers and my own family.
When Kemp ends the shutdown, we run the risk of creating a new infection curve upward. Those businesses that do open will do so because of onerous costs that they feel obligated to pay or because they see a chance for a windfall, with so many places being shuttered still. I hope they map out safe ways of operating, but I do not think that their first concerns could be the health of their employees or customers, or that they have the proper guidance to have protocols in place to assure the general public.
A line cook probably has roommates, may not have been great at social distancing, probably will take mass transit to work, and then be sent to the grocery store to prepare for food service. They will have hundreds of contact points to put them in a dangerous position, and then countless ways to spread the virus if they get it. Kemp said at a news conference on April 2 that he had just found out that the virus can be asymptomatic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had known since January. The CDC is in Atlanta, also home to about a half-million of the governor’s constituents.
I do not trust that this administration has the data to placate my concerns. This unleashing of irresponsibility will do nothing but harm.
I want to get back to work, but I will keep my places closed, as will every chef I have talked to.
A few weeks ago, my restaurants started doing some takeout, but then, with a small, dedicated crew, we began serving meals to first responders, medical facilities and in-need communities in Athens and Atlanta, backed by World Central Kitchen and the Blank Family Foundation. We put in place stringent safety measures — sanitation, social distancing, no-contact drop-offs, temperature checks — for ourselves and the people we feed. We have served almost 25,000 meals in the past three weeks. Our mission is entirely apolitical. We deliver to ministries, Latinx communities, housing projects, rural towns, homeless shelters, clinics and hospitals.
I really want to walk through my dining rooms again, giddy from the impact we make in our communities, reminding my people about the power of authenticity, of attention to detail, checking on the couple at Table 15 to make sure they enjoyed the braised guinea hen with fava beans, the whipped English peas with ricotta on toast, or the poached farm egg with crisp rice and kimchi. I want to refill their glasses with wine and talk to them about their day. I want to swoop into the kitchen and see smiling professionals carving duck, blending soups and plating chess pies. I want to underscore the beauty of consistency and technique, and implore them to make each plate more elegant and refined than the last. I want to pay my taxes, fund my schools and sign paychecks that signify my proudest accomplishment: being a good leader and employer.
That will happen again soon. But right now I need to help nourish my community, and prove to myself, my team and my customers that we can provide a safe place of respite from this catastrophe.