Life was turning around for Mary Lou Bakewell: She’d rebounded from back surgery, returned to work and bought a house with her husband, a bar manager at Siné, last fall.
The baby boy came Jan. 16. She stayed home for about seven weeks — unpaid, but getting by. She’d resume bartending at Home Team Grill in time for March Madness.
March was always reliable, until it wasn’t.
The couple could only watch as the basketball games that lured fans to the sports bar were first played to empty arenas, then canceled amid an escalating pandemic.
Their jobs came next. Between 115,000 to 170,000 of the state’s 287,000 restaurant workers will meet the same fate if national projections hold true.
Finding a new restaurant job had always been easy. Now it’s impossible.
Jobs in service and hospitality — think bartenders and baristas, hairstylists and hotel workers — are disappearing as the president, the governor and the nation’s top doctors urge people to stay home so more of us stay alive.
In Richmond, at least 100 restaurants have closed their doors entirely and hundreds more have converted to takeout only in the wake of Gov. Ralph Northam’s order to limit gatherings at restaurants and other places to no more than 10 people.
Suddenly, Bakewell has a 2-month-old son, a 4-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old stepson in a house with a leaking waste water pipe that shut off access to the kitchen and one of two bathrooms, with no clear path forward as the bills piled up.
They’re looking at a $1,000 homeowner’s insurance deductible, up to $600 for parts not covered by insurance and a $1,500 mortgage payment for April.
And that’s best-case, if the sample plumbers took from the wall Friday to test for asbestos doesn’t force them to leave home during the repairs, and if the repairmen are still allowed to work during any new stage of social distancing.
For now, the couple are taking turns watching the children, making calls and filling out forms online.
“Pretty much anybody that we are going to have a bill from, we have been trying to get in touch with them, even just to push them off for a little,” said Bakewell, who had planned to sell baked goods from home to make a little cash before her kitchen imploded. “We know we’d be OK this month. We can do that for a month or so, but beyond that is where we would need something to change.”
It can be hard, she said, to not let the children see them panicking. But they worry how they’ll pay bills, whether they’ll get to keep health insurance and what shoe is left to drop.
“We are realizing there’s not a lot of it we can control, just like everybody else,” Bakewell said. “I think if it felt like you’re the only one struggling, it might start to feel like a pity party, but as bad as our situation is right now, I still am very aware there are people in a more desperate situation than we are.”
Restaurants employed about 45,000 people in the Richmond metro area — which includes the city and 16 nearby localities — during the third quarter of last year, according to an analysis by Chmura Economics & Analytics in Richmond.
National estimates of 40% to 60% cuts across the industry would mean between 18,000 and 27,000 are or will soon be out of work, said Chris Chmura, the company’s CEO and chief economist.
Among them is Judy Morgan, who relied almost entirely on tips as a server at World of Beer in Short Pump. The bank is letting her wait three months on her car payment, but she has about $600 saved and the rent for April is more than twice that amount.
Virginia received over 30,000 unemployment claims last week. More are coming.
Efforts to contain the COVID-19 virus pit the safety of the broader community against the needs of people whose livelihood depends on rooms full of people.
“I don’t envy any restaurant owner or any small-business owner,” said Julie Heins, head chef at Secco Wine Bar who’s now looking to pick up work at a farm or a landscaping company — anywhere, really. “These are impossible decisions: the livelihood of all of their staff or public safety?”
Some restaurants are still trying to figure out whether it’s better for their employees to lay them off or have them work a fraction of their usual hours.
Tom Colicchio, the “Top Chef” head judge, restaurateur and activist, told The Washington Post he expects 75% or more of restaurants across the country will go under.
“Charity can’t deal with something this big,” he said. “This [demands] government intervention.”
Chmura said it’s too soon to predict whether jobs will bounce back or how many businesses will never reopen.
“This is hard to forecast because we don’t know how long this event will last, and perhaps more importantly, how long social distancing will last,” Chmura said. “There’s just so much uncertainty out there.”
The coronavirus has killed more than 10,000 people around the world, 225 in the U.S. For millions of others, the response is threatening to bleed them dry.
Kenzie Kincaid turned 22 on Sunday. She lost her job as a barista at LuLu’s on Monday. The same day, her boyfriend got laid off from his hotel job. And on Wednesday, her mother lost her job at a hotel in Hot Springs.
The band she fronts, which has played 106 shows since April and pays most of her bills, had three cancellations last week.
“To have it ripped away so suddenly and no guarantee it will be able to come back at the same speed we had going, it’s depressing to think about,” Kincaid said. “This is scary.”
Kincaid is supposed to graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University on May 8. With enough savings to last a few months, she’s more prepared than many people she knows, but will it be enough?
Power and water won’t be shut off over missed payments during the crisis. Richmond is weighing an eviction freeze and other measures to help. Federal lawmakers are considering sending most Americans a $1,200 check and offering extra help to small businesses.
Meanwhile, Virginia has made it simpler to qualify for unemployment, which pays between $54 and $378 a week depending on how much workers were making before being laid off. But unemployment offices are closed to the public because of the virus, and people have reported waiting up to two hours on hold. The employment commission has recommended filing claims online.
Mag Prete is among a growing chorus of laid-off workers who fear it won’t be enough, especially if people are expected to pay back two or three months of rent once the world starts spinning again. He’s advocating a statewide freeze on rent and mortgage payments for those affected to avoid a mass displacement of service workers.
If banks and airlines can be bailed out by the government, they reason, why not the most vulnerable workers?
“People are scared. People feel helpless. Our humanity is changing. We can’t have pride in the situation. We just need help,” Prete said. “We need help from more than just donors who like our restaurants. We need the world to look at us now.”
Krystal Williams and three hairstylists set out on their own in December, renting suites on Huguenot Road to open Shine Blowdry Bar.
Her philosophy was to always be there, because there was always the chance someone would walk in and spend money. Now she’s unsure if showing up will even cover the gas she burns on the 45-minute commute.
Williams had one client Wednesday, with no others scheduled until Friday night. The Friday appointment canceled.
The team typically brought in $1,100 or $1,200 a week. Recently? $233, which doesn’t cover the weekly cost of renting a salon booth.
Williams understands why people are afraid, but their absence still hurts. She has bills, a 13-year-old son and three other hairstylists she sees struggling.
“Two of my girls are pregnant. I’ve been freaking out because I’m a momma bear,” said Williams, 41, her voice cracking. “I have to put food on the table. I have a 6-foot son. He needs shoes. He’s growing like a weed.”
She’s trying to add gigs with food and grocery delivery while also volunteering to bring groceries to elderly people who don’t feel safe in a grocery store.
Everything feels like it’s in limbo. New York on Friday ordered hair and nail salons and other personal service shops to close.
Will Virginia be next?
Prete, a line cook at Don’t Look Back until last week, channeled his anxiety into helping organize a Facebook group and a fundraising page that would solicit emergency aid for the most struggling.
For people like Todd Durante, who washed dishes at Barrio Taqueria in the Fan District to afford the $135 weekly rent at a recovery house in the city.
The restaurant closed for dine-in Monday, and soon he was volunteering to help pass out free meals at city schools.
“This week, I’m OK. Next week, I’ll get my last check. After that, I don’t know,” said Durante, who was released from jail in January and isn’t sure where he’ll go if he can’t come up with the money. “I would say a homeless shelter, but I assume they’re pretty full at this point.”
People had donated more than $4,800 by Saturday, and Prete was asking people to send information that would help determine who needed help.
Everyone, it seemed.
Within 24 hours, Prete had a list of more than $30,000 in needs, mainly from people who aren’t sure how they’ll pay rent.
“There’s no precedent for this. There’s nothing we can look at to know what to do, to know what to expect, to know what to plan for. It feels like the end of our world,” said Prete, who for now still has a side job shipping bicycles. “It feels so much bigger than just thinking about how I’m going to pay rent next.”
The city’s tight-knit restaurant community is reverberating with individual and collective efforts to provide hope and help, with sights set on a larger scale.
A bakery gave out free bread loaves to anyone who needed it. A hamburger joint set up a free drive-thru. Multiple GoFundMe accounts sprang up, and some people sent help directly to workers with payment apps like Cash or Venmo.
A virtual happy hour on Friday encouraged people to have a drink at home and text a donation as a tip that would go toward grants for struggling food service workers.
On Wednesday, Matthew Tlusty cooked a sit-down dinner for his employees at Saltbox in Willow Lawn, a private party of eight. They ate crab cakes, oysters and loup de mer, drank from the restaurant’s already opened wines and talked about preparing for an unpredictable future.
It was the restaurant’s last meal that wouldn’t be boxed up as takeout for nobody knows how long. Tlusty knows takeout can’t support him and his staff.
“This whole to-go thing, it’s fool’s gold,” Tlusty said. “I don’t need to just sell a crab cake entree. I need to sell a cocktail, I need to sell a bottle of wine, I need to sell a dessert. ... We make very little money off of our food. It’s everything else. And servers don’t get tipped on takeout.”
On Friday, Virginia relaxed its rules to allow businesses to sell alcohol through pickup or delivery.
Restaurateurs, Tlusty said, are among the first places people look to when they’re working on a charity event, and he’d like to see the people restaurants have helped organize an event to help them now.
“We’re not the group of people to say, ‘Help us out, help us out, we need a bailout.’ But we need a bailout,” Tlusty said. “We’ve got our employees we have to take care of. It’s not like we can go work at another restaurant, because there’s not another restaurant to go to.”
In a video posted Friday titled “We need help now,” a dozen Richmond restaurant owners appeal for a lifeline with stoicism betrayed by voices that carry the strain of the worst week of their careers.
The clip, which racked up more than 11,000 views by Saturday, begins with Kevin Liu, owner of the Jasper, Tin Pan and Carytown Cupcakes:
“Bars and restaurants are not an industry that will go away. The question is: ‘Will we still be here, the people that you know and love right now in your community?’”
In some way, it’s what everyone’s asking: How long can we survive?