‘I don’t want to die’: Restaurant workers choose between earning money and risking infection with COVID-19

 by Abbey Marshall

When Tori Haye went to the hospital in the first few weeks of the stay-at-home order during the COVID-19 pandemic, they found out they had Type 1 diabetes: Immunocompromised during a pandemic.

An employee at both Mr. Zub’s Deli and Nervous Dog Coffee Bar, the 21-year-old had been one of the 1.36 million Ohioans who filed for unemployment since Gov. Mike DeWine announced statewide shutdowns and restrictions in March. At that time, restaurants were restricted to carry-out only, but they were permitted to reopen for dine-in starting at the end of May. 

Now, only weeks after their diagnosis, Tori is facing a question many bartenders, baristas and servers are contemplating: Do I risk my life in order to support my livelihood? 

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“When I came home from the hospital, I had to decide whether or not I would go back to work,” says Tori. Though Nervous Dog closed during the stay-at-home order and recently reopened with mask requirements for patrons, Mr. Zub’s, where Tori is a line cook, remained open for carry-out and opened its restaurant and bar in alignment with the green light from the state. 

“I technically work two part-time jobs, so I wasn’t able to qualify for original unemployment,” Tori says. “We were barely hanging on. I needed money.”

At the same time, Tori is aware that the virus could “take me down” at any moment.

Though Mr. Zub’s is operating under restricted hours, the bar patio typically attracts large late-night crowds of customers on weekends. The restaurant, as well as any business reopening, is taking precautions required by law. There are sanitizing stations, reduced capacity and hours and mask requirements — for employees, at least.

“Even though we have precautions, it’s still scary because customers can do whatever they want,” Tori says.

While cloth facial coverings help prevent the spread of coronavirus, they primarily keep the wearer’s germs from dispersing. So while servers might be required to wear masks to protect customers, employees are not covered if a patron doesn’t wear one.

“I’m no spring chicken,” says Matthew Keller, a server at Dante Boccuzzi Akron who is rejoining the workforce as his employer reopens. “I’m fit, but I’m almost 50. I like restaurant life, but I am scared to go back. I’ve heard horror stories about some guests.”

The 46-year-old has been unemployed since the state shut down in early March. Unlike Tori, he says he was “very fortunate” to be among those who received unemployment benefits in the interim, a total that has mounted over $2.2 billion in payouts in Ohio. He says though he is grateful for the work and structure upon his return, he thinks it’s too hasty for the state to phase its reopening.

“It seems like Ohio’s budget shortfall determined the pace of our reopening rather than looking at the spread of the pandemic and how to take care of people the best,” he says.

Ohio Jobs and Family Services has been overwhelmed with applications since DeWine’s order to shut down non-essential businesses, including bars and restaurants. One in 10 Ohioans have applied for benefits, leading to lengthy delays in issuing benefits that have taken some recipients several weeks and hundreds of calls to receive. 

Though Ohio has seen unemployment claims decrease in the past eight weeks since the state lifted the “stay-at-home” order, the state is attempting to limit further claims, announcing that they will start denying benefits to those who do not return to work unless a specific exception applies to them.  

For those that worry about contracting the virus but do not meet those exceptions, like Matthew, that turns their option to return to work into a decision.

“If I thought I could take two or months off in addition to this, I might consider (staying home longer),” Matthew says. “I could stretch my funds personally for another month or two, but after that it would start to get uncomfortably tight. Money is determining it more than anything.”

For others, they’re happy to return to work and socialization after months of self isolation.

“I was super ready to work and interact with other humans, and it’s been fun watching the people come back,” says Angela Roloff, a server at Eye Opener who recently returned to work after months on unemployment benefits. “Everyone was so appreciative to be served, to be around other people, to not have to cook.”

Angela says she has not had a bad experience with customers, nor is she scared for her own health because of all the health precautions the Wallhaven breakfast spot is taking. In fact, Angela says, the customers have been more considerate than usual. 

“When I first came back to work, there was a regular that came in, and he was so excited to see so many people here that he bought breakfast for the entire restaurant and tipped everyone in the house,” she says. “There’s a lot of love going around and that’s beautiful to see. Everyone is more grateful because they’ve had something taken away from them.”

But many still fear for the threat of someone being taken away from them. Because he will be returning to work, Matthew said he will not be seeing his aging mother, who he normally helps take care of, “indefinitely.”

“There are so many people who have invisible diseases and disorders. It’s not just elderly people,” Tori said. “I am a seemingly healthy 21-year-old, but if I were to catch COVID, I could potentially die from it because of my immune system. It’s crazy people are putting other people’s lives in danger because they want a philly cheese steak.”

“I just urge people to try your best to follow all the recommended precautions,” Matthew said. “Wear a mask. This is about everyone, not just an individual.

“I don’t want to die over this.”

Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at abbey@thedevilstrip.com.

Photo: Shane Wynn via AkronStock