As America enters its seventh full month of the COVID-19 pandemic, the country has seen its restaurants evolve and adapt in all sorts of unexpected ways. Every state has its own reopening plans, and while indoor dining is still a question mark in New York City, many states barely closed their dining rooms at all. For one restaurant manager in Arkansas, where indoor dining resumed on May 11, the quick reopening only brought added levels of discomfort, anxiety, and confusion. He works for a group that runs nine sister restaurants in central and northwest Arkansas, and he spoke to Grub Street, on condition of anonymity, about his experiences over the past few months.
At the beginning, people didn’t understand. Honestly, people still don’t understand, but back in early March, many people around me viewed COVID-19 as an exaggeration. We knew that people were dying in other states and that it was spreading fast, but it was so distant from us that many people struggled to wrap their heads around how serious it was.
It was mid-March when I got a call from one of our owners around 6:30 p.m. — right in the middle of the dinner rush — saying to close the doors at 8 p.m. That was it. The next steps were unknown, just that everyone was still expected to come into work the next day. The following morning, 30 minutes before turning on the open sign, we heard from the company’s senior management that we’d be keeping the doors shut. No dine-in service, just carryout orders.
Eventually, we started curbside pickup, teamed up with a local delivery service, and waited for more information from the senior leadership. That information never came, which put the other managers and me in a tough spot. We didn’t know what to tell customers, and we didn’t know how to lead the employees. We were just as lost as they were.
The marketing team was still active, constantly updating our Instagram and Facebook pages, so we learned about the decisions being made for our store in the same way customers did: by scrolling through our feeds. It was clear that ownership thought it was more important to keep the public-facing image shiny than it was to let us know our next steps.
In early April, one of the owners came in with a box of bandannas — at the time, their perception of appropriate PPE — and news that everyone would be receiving a bonus and $1.50-per-hour raise. The bonuses were nice, but the raises have yet to hit any of our paychecks.
We were told we would reopen on May 24. Masks would be required for all customers and employees (something the state had yet to mandate), and we’d be operating at one-third capacity. One of the other managers, uncomfortable with this decision, emailed the head of HR, outlining why he felt it was irresponsible and unsafe for us to reopen at all. He also reiterated the frustration he felt with the lack of communication. He was met with a brisk response saying that he was more likely to catch it from co-workers than the customers. HR said that if he was going to get it, he would’ve already gotten it, so opening up would not bring any additional danger to himself or other employees. That was the final straw for him and another manager on my team, guys who had been at the company for years. Now there were only three of us remaining to manage a staff of nearly 30 people.
We had three days to prepare for the reopening. At first, the owners brought one box of disposable surgical masks to replace the bandannas. We were told everyone would be required to wear that mask until, basically, it fell apart. Those were shortly replaced by cloth masks that matched uniform colors. The new masks are made of a thin T-shirt material and struggle to fit comfortably on many of our heads — falling off of noses or pulling tightly on ears. People wanted to go back to the disposable ones, but we were told that the cloth masks were the only approved masks, and, if you lost the two you were provided, you had to buy a new one for $6. The governor didn’t issue a statewide mask mandate until nearly two months after we reopened.
Now, just about four months into customers being back in the restaurant, you would think we are in pre-pandemic times. Despite the fact that the state has had an undeniably steep increase in reported cases since reopening, people act as if the pandemic is over — as if they’re untouchable by the virus.
While the majority of people who come in wear their masks, do their best to respect social distancing, and respond well enough when we ask them to pull up their mask or stand a little further back, there is still that smaller group of people, the ones who oppose masks — loudly and aggressively. They believe Trump’s narrative that “the increase in cases is because of the increase in testing,” and they’re not afraid to let you know it.
We’ve been called “mask nazis,” we have patronizingly been asked if we have medical degrees, and we have been told we’re stripping people of their constitutional rights. Grown men have hovered around the register, masks off, waiting to pick a fight with the first employee to ask them to please pull it back up. I’ve had people scream in my face, close enough that I can feel their spit land on me, and the most I can do is escort them out. As a manager, I can’t show my anger or frustration because then I lose my authority. I have to stay collected, calm. None of us should be having to physically remove adults from a restaurant, but here we are.
Employees ask me what to do, how to navigate a situation with a customer or what the senior management has planned if things get worse, and I don’t know what to tell them. The other managers and I have just as much information as they do. We’re expected to lead, but we don’t have the resources or the power to change anything. When we ask senior leadership for support, answers to basic questions, or to listen to our concerns, it’s all blown off. We’ve even suggested ways we could better operate and have been completely ignored or shut down, despite the fact that we’re the ones who have to be in the store every day, the one who see everything unfold. We’re the voices they need to listen to, and we are silenced.
When I get up to go to work every day, it’s almost instant anxiety. I’m constantly preparing myself for the worst. The weight of attempting to navigate a global pandemic without any support is suffocating. How am I supposed to calmly tell uncooperative customers or confused employees what we expect from them when I don’t even know what to expect? I don’t want to be here — it’s not safe for me to be here — but I can’t afford to leave.
I don’t know where the last straw is, but I’m getting close. If senior management continues to be out of touch, continues to put their social image and profit before their employees, if I continue to feel like we’re not getting the respect that we deserve, or if anyone in my family gets sick, that’s it. I’m out.