If you care about the future of bars and restaurants, it’s hard not to despair right now. The pandemic has caused a host of spaces, from old favorites to new upstarts, to close their doors forever. Concerns over working conditions in kitchens have led to impossible decisions: Should a restaurant owner stay open and potentially put their staff at risk, or cease operations entirely? The CARES Act, passed earlier this year, offered relief to small business owners and increased unemployment benefits — measures that helped restaurant owners and employees alike. But given that we’re likely to be social distancing and wearing masks until well into 2021, bars and restaurants are unlikely to experience a quick rebound, to say nothing of the many threats posed by the second wave of coronavirus cases.
A second stimulus would go a long way to shoring up the industry, offering bar and restaurant owners more security than they’ve had for much of the year and keeping workers from having to decide between their health and their livelihood. Unfortunately, Congress has yet to pass legislation that would help the restaurant industry despite overwhelming evidence of the pandemic’s severity and staying power. To be more specific, the Senate has yet to pass legislation to do this. The House passed the Heroes Act in May and then passed an updated version in October; the Senate continues to debate a stimulus package, but has yet to pass anything.
While certain figures within government can’t seem to be bothered to care about the plight of the restaurant industry, a number of high-profile chefs and restaurant owners have stepped in to fill the void. That’s taken a lot of forms, from direct aid to restaurant workers to institutional arrangements that have helped some spaces stay in business.
Momofuku founder David Chang recently competed on a celebrity edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire — and, with a deft guess on presidential history, he emerged as a winner. On the episode, he spoke about raising awareness for the plight of restaurant workers, and once he’d won, he donated his winnings to the Southern Smoke Foundation, a crisis relief organization for hospitality workers.
Guy Fieri has also been working tirelessly to draw attention to the issues facing restaurant workers during the pandemic. Fieri’s entry on this year’s Bloomberg 50 credits him with having raised $21.5 million for restaurant workers over the course of just 7 weeks. This came via the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund, which distributed a number of $500 grants to people in need.
Other chefs and restaurateurs have taken a similar approach, creating nonprofits and other institutions to address the issues facing hospitality workers. Chef and onetime The Mind of a Chef host Edward Lee is one of the co-founders of The Lee Initiative, which keeps kitchens open to prepare meals for restaurant workers in need. Keeping restaurant kitchens running to benefit people who need meals can be seen as another kind of aid to hospitality workers; José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen is one of several organizations involved in that type of action. According to their website, World Central Kitchen’s Chefs For America initiative has spent $117 million on meals to date.
Taken together, these actions represent an impressive display of ingenuity and generosity. That these chefs have had to step up in such a way at all, however, is also indicative of a lack of substantial governmental action. For all of the impressive and necessary work that these chefs, and others, have done, there are plenty of bar and restaurant workers facing an uncertain future right now. It didn’t have to be this way.
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