For nearly 70 years, the Players Retreat has been a Raleigh institution, attracting a diverse clientele of college kids, politicians, service industry staples, and downtowners, many of whom frequented the bar and restaurant several nights a week. Then, on March 17, the PR—along with every other bar and dine-in restaurant in North Carolina—was ordered to close indefinitely.
“I had to lay off 50-something people the other day,” owner Gus Gusler told the INDY last week. “It was a very, very difficult day. Hopefully, when we open back up, every one of those people will come back to work. But we’ll have to see.”
Last Tuesday, in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, Governor Cooper signed Executive Order 118, mandating that bars and restaurants cease sit-down operations and pivot exclusively to delivery and curbside to-go orders. While the order also removed barriers to accessing unemployment benefits, it means that tens of thousands of service industry workers across the state are suddenly without jobs.
Indeed, more than 83,000 people filed unemployment claims between last Monday and Saturday afternoon, compared to the usual 3,500.
Many local industry leaders, including Gusler, have expressed support for Cooper’s measure, though if the crisis continues beyond a few weeks, their ability to reopen remains in question.
“We are functioning on a week-to-week if not a day-to-day type of basis,” says Vansana Nolintha, co-owner of Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana. “This current baseline is not about thriving. It’s not even about surviving. This is about immediately sustaining so that if there’s any loan or grant coming, that within this immediate seven to 14 days, restaurants won’t go under prior to structural support coming out.”
Brewery Bhavana introduced curbside pickup and delivery options on Friday, but paused all restaurant operations after just one night. On Instagram, Nolintha wrote that, despite a successful first night, after a conversation with his staff, they decided that “the rapid progression of these last few days has made it increasingly evident that our natural yearning to care for you all—through food, drinks, community, and connection—is antithetical to public health and safety.”
Nolintha says he’s deeply concerned about the well-being of his staff during this industry-wide shutdown. Currently, the restaurant group is providing the staff with meals and is attempting to work with local governments to explore long-term, interest-free loans for staff members to help them make it through the crunch.
Several community-based groups have responded to the industry-wide need, as well, including a Triangle Restaurant Workers relief fund coordinated by the Frankie Lemmon Foundation.
Angela Salamanca, owner of Raleigh’s Centro and Gallo Pelón Mezcaleria, told the INDY last week that efforts to support staff are multifaceted. She says that, despite the uncertainty, she wants to empower her staff of roughly 40 to develop their skills surrounding financial literacy in order to weather the storm.
“From what I see, not a lot of people know their expenses,” Salamanca says. “So I encouraged them to really look at their expenses and see where they could cut one or two or three or any excess spending that they had that would be unnecessary. And then to get back to me after two weeks of pay and cutting some expenses. If things are really rough because they don’t have the support of family or a partner, I do want to take care of them because I really do love them.”
The people-centric nature of service environments creates employee bonds unique to the industry. These relationships have also established a tight-knit cohort of local restaurant owners, many of whom are banding together to create solutions for service workers. For now, though, the prevailing sentiment is that, whether through curbside to-go orders or direct donations, restaurants and bars need public support in a dire and desperate way.
And for places that can’t make their goods to-go, the reality of this moment appears even bleaker.
Vita Vite, an art gallery and wine bar with locations in downtown Raleigh and North Hills, has shuttered its doors indefinitely.
“It’s not feasible for us to function as a takeout place,” says owner Lindsay Rice. “We tried the first day, and, unfortunately, it just really isn’t feasible.”
Rice says one of the most concerning things to her is the public’s lack of understanding about the way the service industry works.
“I think the thing that people outside of this industry don’t realize is how much you rely on tips for your income,” she says. “It’s just basic facts about this industry that if you’re not open, then you’re not serving people, and your pay is going to be either nonexistent or, you know, very minimized.”
In the days leading up to Cooper’s order, Lemuel tried to work many of the shifts at his establishments by himself in order to convert any revenue into wages for staff. But he reached a point at which he couldn’t physically do it.
“I didn’t know how to tell these kids that they don’t have any grocery money or rent money coming up,” Lemuel says.
The community surrounding the three bars raised a substantial amount of money through an online donation platform, but those funds will only sustain the venues’ rent for the coming month at the most. Lemuel says that LGBTQ-community-supported bars like his aren’t massively profitable to begin with. His focus right now is ensuring that he’s able to reopen when the pandemic ends and make sure that the staff has money for rent and bills.
“The weight of this is that we didn’t have any dedicated queer spaces [in Raleigh] before,” Lemuel says. “And if we go out of business, then there’s this huge weight that we won’t have one again for a long time.”
While facing disparate challenges, the owners have a unified message: The restaurants, bars, and venues you’ve relied on now need your support.
“We live in a culture where going out and eating out is part of living,” Salamanca says. “I would imagine that everyone has at least one favorite place where they like to dine or do takeout. If they have that connection to a place, then they can relate to the hardship that someone is going through at this moment. If you could donate the money that you spend on an average, weekly basis while dining out, that would make a difference.”
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