Carlos Soto sounds chipper about returning to work today. The 35-year-old is looking forward to being around people again and having something to do with his time. FROGS cantina, the Tex-Mex restaurant in Atlanta where he has worked as a server, bartender, and manager for the past four and a half years, closed in mid-March, but is planning to open for takeout with a limited staff this week.
“We’re going to be wearing face masks and disinfecting everything. I’m not scared anymore. I’m ready to go back to work,” Soto told Civil Eats.
But not everyone in Georgia’s restaurant industry feels that way after Governor Brian Kemp announced that businesses such as salons and gyms could re-open last Friday, with restaurants open for dine-in service starting today. The move came amidst a smattering of manufactured protests against governors issuing seemingly over-restrictive stay-at-home orders in states across the country. There has been notable pushback to Kemp’s order—even President Trump, who repeatedly fanned the flames of the protests, criticized the move last week, and the White House today noted that some form of physical distancing is likely to be in place nationwide through the summer. But for workers like Soto and many others, the situation is dire.
Civil Eats spoke to several Georgia restaurant workers, who cannot count on unemployment benefits and are wary of losing their housing, and who feel they are being asked to trade their health for a regular income. In the first three weeks of April, the Georgia Department of Labor (DOL) paid out over $600 million in unemployment benefits, according to the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce. Despite the massive payout, DOL is still working through a backlog. Some restaurant workers and owners wonder if the rush to reopen businesses is really about stemming the flow of benefits to workers.
But Soto, who has barely received any unemployment benefits in the past month, laughed when asked if he’d be returning to work if he was receiving full benefits. “No. But where is the money?”
Soto isn’t alone in his wait. Michael Aaglan, 51, has been furloughed since his employer, the Atlanta steakhouse Highland Tap, closed in March. He could not pay April rent, and he doubts he will be able to pay in May, either. Aaglan’s bosses told him that they won’t be re-opening today out of safety concerns, which is a relief considering he has a history of respiratory problems, and he thinks reopening now is too early. And yet, as bills pile up, he told Civil Eats, “I might have no choice but to go back [as soon as we reopen].”
In the meantime, Aaglan said he has spent the past month feeling depressed and anxious about his unemployment benefits. He’s been trying to buy food while also paying a portion of his rent “I get overwhelmed occasionally,” he says, “but pull myself back together.”
“We all lost our jobs, and now we’re being asked to be on the frontlines again to be guinea pigs to see if this works.”
Chef Hugh Acheson, the Top Chef judge and owner of Five & Ten in Athens and Empire State South and By George in Atlanta, also believes it is too soon to reopen and has concerns about staff safety. “We’ve already been on the frontline. We all lost our jobs,” he told Civil Eats. “And now we’re being asked to be on the frontlines again to be guinea pigs to see if this works.”
Missing Checks and Tough Decisions
The state has struggled to process and pay out the record number of unemployment claims, and workers across the state have questions about what the proposed reopening would mean. Georgia’s Labor Commissioner, Mark Butler, fielded questions last week about how reopening businesses would affect employees’ unemployment claims.
According to Butler, workers can earn up to $300 a week without any change to their state unemployment, and restaurant owners could claim those workers as partially employed so owners could file for Payroll Protection Plan loans. Butler assured workers who have yet to receive unemployment benefits that their checks are coming. “Whatever you qualified for, you still get. It doesn’t matter even in normal times,” he said last week.
For workers like Aaglan and Soto, those promises ring hollow. “They say it’s coming, but when?” Soto asks. “I stretched $300 over the past four weeks.”
Butler said people who feel unsafe returning to their workplaces may refuse and still collect benefits—although they would need to prove their workplace is unsafe, a potentially tall order when the governor says it is “on the other side” of efforts to flatten the curve. However, Georgia Department of Public Health’s daily status report shows no signs of new COVID-19 cases decreasing.
Kimberly Skobba, a professor at the University of Georgia whose research focuses on housing insecurity and low-income workers, described the current climate for workers as extremely precarious. “It’s a perfect storm: housing costs are very high, wages have not kept pace, the nature of work for low- and moderate-income households is uncertain, [and] the risk is all on the employee,” she says.
Cameren Cook, 34, was a line cook at the Lazy Llama Cantina in Atlanta’s midtown neighborhood. She has been furloughed for a little over a month. After several weeks she has finally started receiving unemployment benefits and has started paying off her debts. Now, that lifeline is in question.
“I refuse to go back to work, because I know that it is too soon,” she told Civil Eats. Cook said she does not have health insurance, like many service workers, and doesn’t want to expose herself to the virus for the sake of a low-paying job.
State and Industry Response
With nearly all it’s official response to the pandemic, Georgians have endured a confusing back-and-forth of messages. After Kemp made his announcement, restaurant industry leaders pushed back, saying it would take time to reopen restaurants in a way that follows social distancing guidelines.
The Georgia Restaurant Association, for instance, has not released a unified response to Kemp’s decision. However, Jay Bandy of Goliath Consulting Group is working on integrating Kemp’s newly released requirements with standard restaurant guidelines for health and safety, while also thinking about Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.
Bandy said restaurants will struggle with accommodating the new rules quickly. For instance, Kemp’s executive order says restaurant workers must wear a “face covering” at all times, but beyond that the details are sparse.
“Everyone has to wear a mask, but how do you do that?” Bandy asked. “What kind of mask is that? Where do you get masks? You can’t go to the drugstore and buy 100 masks.” These concerns have a very real effect on the workers being asked to come back.
Bandy said the earliest that any of the restaurants he works with will be opening is June 1, regardless of the governor’s order.
Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, has expressed her own concerns over Governor Kemp’s decision. She told CNN that neither she nor the mayor of Augusta had heard any discussion of the decision before it was announced, and she noted that the state ranks 45th in the U.S. in per capita testing and is not currently testing asymptomatic patients unless they fall into the essential worker category.
Without testing and careful planning, experts warn that loosening stay-at-home rules and reopening businesses will increase COVID-19 infections and deaths. Dr. Antony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, has repeatedly pushed back on suggestions that states start to ease coronavirus restrictions on businesses. Fauci described reopening by May 1 as “overly optimistic.” Kemp’s decision beats that date by a few days.
Before her restaurant closed, line cook Cameren Cook said, “I was getting paid to make my favorite food. I had clearly won the lottery.” Now, if restaurants reopen and make receiving unemployment impossible she worries that she’ll, “have to pick [between] my food budget, next month’s rent, and health insurance.”