Empty tables were the first sign that it wasn’t business as usual. Andrew Branca is a commis chef at high-end restaurants Roister and the St. Clair Supper Club in downtown Chicago. As fears over coronavirus heightened this month, he saw the restaurant’s business fall off.
“We went from 160 covers at dinner to 60 covers a day,” Branca explained. “Twenty at lunch and forty at dinner.”
After that, things happened pretty quickly.
“Managers took a 35 percent pay cut,” he said. “Everything at that point was up in the air.” The next day, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker closed all bars and restaurants across the state.
It is the type of action seen across the country, where more than 100 million people are living under some sort of order to stay at home.
For Branca, who also studies lighting design in the theater program at DePaul University, it means a complete change to every facet of his life.
All of the theater productions he would do lighting design for have been canceled. All of his classes have moved online.
“I’m not really online oriented when it comes to learning,” Branca said, echoing concerns for college students across the country who are facing new realities in the virtual classroom.
“I can’t imagine being an acting student doing movement classes on Skype,” he joked.
Like many Americans, COVID-19 has left Branca at home, social distancing and trying to manage a life totally online.
But it is virtually impossible for service employees to Zoom in to serve tables or Skype a haircut, so people like Branca are not working right now.
Although he cannot go to work, his company is taking steps to help its employees.
The Alinea Group, the parent company of Roister and the St. Clair Supper Club, sent an email to its staff letting them know they would be furloughed, expressly encouraging them to apply for unemployment benefits.
Employees were told the furloughs would last through April 1 and that they will “continue to receive [their] benefits.” The furloughs are expected to be temporary and top brass tried to assure employees that “your job will be available to you upon the termination of this furlough period.”
The company opened a to-go business that has been thriving and they are splitting the proceeds across all of their employees - whether they are at work or not.
Branca knows this is not typical across the industry and that people are really hurting. That is what has kept him from applying for unemployment benefits.
“I want to make sure those resources go to people who need it,” he said. He does expect to apply for unemployment in the coming weeks but wants to hold out as long as possible.
Branca has not talked to his coworkers about how they are managing the crisis although he worries about them.
No industry is immune from the health impact and the financial fallout will be significant, even when the restaurants re-open, particularly within an industry that employs many undocumented workers.
“I’m worried about people who get sick and can’t come back to work,” he said. “It’s a hard time to be an undocumented immigrant in this country.”
In the meantime, he is trying, like all Americans, to stay busy. He’s back in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, far from Chicago, and spending as much time outside as possible.
He says as soon as his restaurant calls, he is ready to hop in his car and drive back to the Windy City. He’s eager to help the business thrive in this new normal.
And while he’s stuck inside? He’s cooking for family and, like all of us, watching Netflix.
“A lot of Netflix,” he said with a laugh.