COVID-19: Service at a Standstill

Bars are empty. Movie halls are closed. Entire cities are deserted. It is as if time’s at a standstill. But, for the service industry, time is money.

The novel coronavirus, christened COVID-19 by the WHO, has caused widespread chaos in 151 countries at the time of writing. About 182,400 people have been infected and 7100 killed worldwide, according to John Hopkins University. From Paris to New York to Madrid to Hoboken, cities across the world are closing restaurants, theatres, schools and other non-essential services to help limit the spread of the coronavirus. According to CDC guidelines of March 15, gatherings of 50 people or more are to be cancelled for the next eight weeks to prevent the spread of the virus.

With the global economy in a critical situation, what happens to the service industry – the often frequented salons, bars, restaurants, and nightclubs?

It is evident that most businesses will survive this lockdown. They will make the switch to order takeout or delivery. Moreover, the U.S. Small Business Administration and some non-profits are actively working to help small business owners keep their businesses open. In fact, President Macron promised to support French businesses by guaranteeing €300 billion worth of loans as well as suspending rent and utility bills owed by small companies. For other industries, employees will most likely be permitted to work remotely – something not possible for the service industry.


A closed sign is posted to the entrance of the Musée Mécanique penny arcade at Fisherman’s Wharf, 16 March 2020, in San Francisco. Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP


This is why we cannot simply forget these thousands of workers – from the bartenders to the table attendants – who depend on paychecks and tips to pay rent and bills and go about their lives. Possible layoffs and non-payments cloud the following weeks, fomenting an economic crisis for them, alongside health risks associated with the pandemic. Adding to the absence of paid sick leaves and a possible loss of health insurance, anxiety levels are at an all-time-high. Workers at adult entertainment establishments are now forced to choose between money and health.

As Melissa Boteach, vice president for income security and child care at the National Women’s Law Center, said, “The coronavirus is quickly showing the cracks in our social insurance programs and labor protections.” She isn’t far from the truth – basic benefits such as living wages, paid sick leave, paid time off, vacation time, and health coverage are unheard of in the service industry, often even not mandated by state laws.

A number of relief programs have developed for the workers. Some of them opt for fundraising, through tips or donations, while others have planned to set up relief centers. In Chicago, Stock Mfg. and Leisure Activities have launched Chicago Hospitality United, a line of t-shirts to raise funds for Chicago’s food and beverage community. All of the net proceeds from the shirts will go directly toward financial relief for hourly employees affected by business shutdowns. The USBG National Charity Foundation has launched a Bartender Emergency Assistance Program available to any bartender or the spouse or child of a bartender. Some others have helped workers indirectly by providing zero or low-interest loans to restaurants in order to maintain their payrolls. A new independent project hosted on Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Ethics and Policy website – the Pittsburgh Virtual Tip Jar – aims to alleviate some of the financial stress of workers during this time.

In response to the crisis, several more programs, grants, and resources – from grassroots efforts to government relief – are popping up, including a regularly updated Hospitality Industry Alliance | COVID-19 Facebook group. You can explore this interactive by the New York Times to find out which worker populations are at a higher risk.

In times like these, when days ahead don’t look any better, it is important for the community to come together. It’s time for solidarity and support.

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