Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

How COVID-19 Is Affecting Bars and Bartenders (and How to Help)

It’s bleak out there for hospitality workers. But small efforts can make a big difference.

tipping illustration
Image:

Liquor.com / Laura Sant

These unprecedented times are scary for everyone. But one sector of the workforce has been hit particularly hard. Many hospitality workers across the U.S. and in Puerto Rico are now jobless and left largely without the standard benefits that many salaried employees receive. To put things into perspective, a staggering 40% of restaurant workers live on poverty-level wages, making it difficult to save or plan for crisis situations, and not all are eligible to collect unemployment. Now, with the majority of the industry faced with no income, no health insurance and no paid time off during this crisis, the welfare of the bartending community hangs in the balance.

Immediate and Lasting Effects

“I’m afraid,” says Sofia Present, a bartender based in Brooklyn. “I’m now unemployed and [have] no idea for how long. Even if this only lasts a few weeks, will the bars and restaurants still be there when we’re allowed to open again? Can they afford to survive it? If it’s more about months than weeks, how will I make a living? How will I pay rent and bills and food in the meantime?” 

These are questions many are asking, and there’s often no reassuring answer. Diana Danaila, the beverage director at a popular bar in Los Angeles, also fears the aftermath of these closures. “Even when the quarantine is over, I expect that people will be so broke and demoralized that it will take a few months for bars and restaurants to get back into the normal swing of things,” she says. “This unfortunately means a lot of us will be unemployed for longer than the two months projected, and I can’t imagine what kind of toll that will take on people’s health, both physical and emotional.”

On the ownership side, there’s plenty at stake too. Edwin Borrero’s bar in San Juan, Puerto Rico, 173 Grados, had been open for just one month before it was forced to close. “[This] means no sales while we are in debt; rent, salaries, construction—anything related to opening a business,” he says. Laura Newman, the owner of Queen’s Park in Birmingham, Ala., is in the same boat: “The bar that I opened with my life savings has been ordered [to] shut down. I’m absolutely crushed and cannot describe how frustrating it is that my bar might fail for reasons that are entirely outside of my control,” she says. Newman currently is in the process of figuring out ways to continue to pay for her employees’ health insurance and is selling gift cards, offering profit-sharing cocktail catering services and launching a Venmo account in an attempt to fundraise on behalf of her staff.

Large-Scale Solutions Needed

To a certain degree, responsibility does fall on employers both big and small to take care of their workers as much as they can. But who’s taking care of them? With no promise of any kind of bailout from the government, the answer is unclear. Borrero and many others have applied to the United States Bartenders Guild (USBG) Bartender Emergency Assistance Program, to which Jameson has just donated a lump sum of $500,000 and, as of March 16, has been matching donations from the general public up to $100,000 and will continue to do so until March 31. As of March 17, Ilegal announced its donation of $50,000 to the same fund, with 100% of profits from select merch going to the fund as well.

Brands are key in this movement. Borrero points out that liquor sales are still going strong on the consumer front at the moment, while the middlemen—bars and their employees—take the hit. Amber Elliot, a bartender in New York City, agrees. “It would be nice to hear more brands contributing since we’re the conduits of selling their product, so I would love [it] if more could find a little bit to give back in our time of need,” she says. Elliot also notes that the season leading up to the COVID-19 era was slow to begin with, leaving staff as vulnerable as they are resilient. 

“On a larger scale, it has made me think about the service industry and how it’s also our duty to sacrifice, as most people are right now, for the common good,” says Elliot. “We see and interact with so many people a day, and things they have touched and consumed from. No matter how careful we are, we are some of the most susceptible to getting sick and spreading it to others. It hurts a lot, and I cried for most of Monday, but now is not the time to be selfish. As long as we are safe and smart, we will survive.”

How Consumers Can Help

For consumers, there’s plenty to be done, whether brands step up to the plate or not. On a national level, USBG is a good go-to resource for bartenders, but with so many people applying for relief from the emergency fund, it’s worth looking at other nationwide initiatives, such as the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, which will route the money to local on-the-ground initiatives supporting hospitality workers, as well as directly support individual workers in crisis while also backing their efforts to support businesses post-crisis with zero-interest loans. SipScience, a national brand providing analytics to hospitality businesses, has also started a GoFundMe for the industry. Another Round Another Rally currently allows people to donate to a service industry tip jar that translates to nationwide tips, grants, gifts and more. And organized video gatherings like Dani & Jackie's Virtual Happy Hour and Cocktails After Dark (both of which take place nightly) are a win for all, with host bartenders taking home tips, brands given an outlet to support, and guests enjoying a bit of socialization and normalcy.

Don’t underestimate how effective it can be to look to your local bar community for ways to help; asking a bartender how you can contribute can go a long way. Las Vegas bartender Tonia Guffey weighs in. “Our two biggest needs right now are paying our rent so we have a shelter over our heads and getting groceries and necessities like medicine and toilet paper and things to keep us healthy if we do get sick,” she says. “If you have a friend or loved one who’s a bartender and you have a little extra money, send them a Venmo or mail them a check. Sometimes it’s hard to ask for money or you don’t know who is struggling themselves.”

Being proactive is key in getting clued in on mobilization from within the industry. Purchasing gift cards for future use is a great idea: SupportRestaurants.Org’s gift card bond program is an excellent option, or consider buying directly from your favorite bar or restaurant. Independent Venmo accounts are popping up everywhere, too. For example, Jen Gregory, a consultant and Chattanooga Beverage Alliance board member, has recently launched a website where visitors can tip local bartenders. In New York City, In Good Company Hospitality is currently running a fundraiser to provide takeout meals to the local service industry community. And several petitions, such as a Change.Org proposal for a restaurant and bar bailout, as well as calls for rent freezes for those in financial binds, are calling for support with signatures and optional donations. No matter where you are or what you can offer, in this crisis it’s about doing what you can. And sometimes, doing what you can will go a long way.