Local Business

Published on March 18th, 2020 | by Elizabeth Tettleton

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Sorry We’re Closed: The Oxford Culinary Scene Goes Dark

Millions will be unemployed this week across the country in the hospitality industry due to accelerating precautions related to the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. Starting at 6 am Wednesday, March 18, Oxford, Mississippi, restaurants were forced to close their bars and dining rooms to customers, and only offer service through curb-side pickup, drive-thru, and delivery methods, as required by the City of Oxford, which will essentially unemploy a major percentage of the workforce for a minimum of 15 days. 

In response, half of Oxford’s local restaurants have already ceased operations completely, not only for the safety of their staff and customer base, but largely due to city, state, and federal governments that are failing to guide their citizens on how to combat a pandemic that they’ve seen coming since January. The safety of Americans is everyone’s utmost concern, and for business owners, their staff and families are their highest priorities. 

“I’m concerned that people don’t know they have the virus and are out in public exposing other people,” said Brooke Krizbai, owner of Volta Taverna and Track 61

Starting last week, many fortunate workers have gone home from their jobs with administrative or paid time off leave and medical insurances, or to work remotely, but the rest will be faced with a loss of income for the foreseeable future. Without a way to cover payroll, many owners in the industry are being forced to lay off their loyal crews. I beg you to hear it from them; I beg you to write to your legislators; I beg you to offer what you can to our community in this dire hour. You may make a difference in the lives of more individuals than you can imagine, and help save the food and beverage industry in our town. 

Food and Beverage Fallout

“It’s always been said within this industry that we can weather any test that comes to pass; this will be the biggest test we have ever taken.” –Matt Wandell, line cook at City Grocery and Snackbar

This past weekend Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill gave guidance to restaurants on how to remain open while keeping staff and customers as safe as possible. 

“I think it was a good effort in terms of getting us all on the same page, but I don’t think it realistically addressed the greater concerns,” said Corbin Evans, owner of the Oxford Canteen on South Lamar. 

On Monday, March 16, Randy Yates, owner of Ajax Diner, polled his staff on whether or not to open their doors to the public. They collectively concluded that they would close Ajax, stating, “The quicker we do this, the quicker we can open back up.”

Tannehill has since decided that her initial instruction did not go far enough. At the March 17 Oxford Board of Aldermen meeting, she introduced a resolution that was unanimously passed, which requires dining rooms and gathering spaces to be closed as of 6 am, Wednesday March 18, 2020.

We all have to do our part to decrease the spread of COVID-19 in Mississippi, which as of Wednesday, March 18 only had reported 34 cases, none of which were in Lafayette County. Perhaps, if we all comply in suggested Center for Disease Control (CDC) actions, we can head off the longevity of the outbreak in our area. 

Since Ajax’s brave move, more have followed suit after fighting to comply and still seeing ghost tables and frightened customers and staff come into their establishments. The decision to close is not an easy one, and some restaurant owners felt they were being judged if they chose to stay open.

“I’m honestly kind of disappointed in the fear mongering I’ve seen from scared business owners and The Oxford Eagle, and I am concerned that people will be ‘upset’ with me for ‘not doing the right thing’ by keeping my restaurant open,” said one restaurateur, who chose to stay anonymous. 

But many are choosing to close anyway, for a variety of reasons.

City Grocery Restaurant Group owner John Currence released this heartfelt statement: “As a 40-year veteran of the service industry, this decision comes more difficultly than I can ever express. The institutionalized part of me knows what the significance of a meal can be in a time of crisis. The dining room at City Grocery after the ice storm of 1994 was as joyful as anywhere I have ever been in the days after we reopened. Restaurants in New Orleans after Katrina were bathed in floods of tears as friends reconnected, so the thought of closing in a time like this is positively counter-intuitive.”

We Need a Stimulus

“I think we all need to band together and request immediate assistance from our city, county, and state governments ASAP. We need a bailout more than the airlines.” –Emily Blount, owner of Saint Leo and Saint Leo Lounge.

States across America are entertaining the idea of a bailout or stimulus for the food and beverage industry. Quite frankly, whether it is President Trump or Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves who makes it a reality, a stimulus would prove crucial to the hospitality landscape as the days pile up that they are not open for business. There are not only parents who have no idea where their next meal will come from, but decades-long and fledgling restaurant proprietors who have never chartered this unfamiliar territory. This is not a hurricane or tornado or ice storm. This is a tragedy with no tangible end in sight, and although a layoff is different from a pink slip, unemployment services take weeks to hit a mailbox or bank account. Immediate action is needed from our legislators before our service industry workers are homeless. 

Justin Hobart, who previously worked several years at Snackbar, spoke up on Facebook saying, “If state and federal governments force financially insecure people to not work, then those governments should cover their bills… If I still lived in [Mississippi] I’d be broke and evicted in a month. I’m very lucky to not be in that financial situation anymore, but I’m so worried for my friends and family who can’t afford to miss a check.”

The need for this stimulus is not just for the workers, but also for spouses and dependents. Ajax server Sarah Costa has a three-year-old son, Brady, to support. “As a server dependent on shifts at Ajax and being a mother of a toddler, the ever-increasing amount of anxiety I have regarding my finances, due to a strong probability of being out of work for weeks on end, lack of food, money for food, and money for cleaning supplies, is unnerving.”

The staff at Ajax created a Venmo account for anyone wanting to contribute gifts to them during the pandemic closures. Those who feel inclined to help may send funds to @Ajax-Diner2020 to help support their staff. Randy Yates is also working on a method for the public to purchase gift cards during the closure. 

Layoffs Begin in Oxford

“Emily and Joie Blount have taken care of us through every crisis yet. But this… this is different. One night it’s business as usual. Next morning we’re all out on our asses.” –Grayson Dyess, pizzaiaolo at Saint Leo. 

With the threat of a stimulus bill looming that may force employees to give 12 weeks of paid time off to employees, many restaurateurs are reacting before it is in place. This expense just isn’t something in their framework, and for many, it could mean massive amounts of debt or even bankruptcy. Many of our restaurant owners have had to make the grim decision to lay off their employees for an unknown amount of time, either in response to threats of these enactments, or the reality of COVID-19 being a risk to the health and safety of their entire establishment. 

The servers, line cooks, pizzaiolos, bartenders, barbacks, hosts, bussers, runners, chefs, bakers, and mixologists are being given no direction and no guidance as they head out the door. The complexity of the decisions to lay workers off is not missed on them, but their immediate need for income is still left unfulfilled.

“We cannot ethically oppose these decisions. But just know that your favorite server, the bartender who listens to your troubles, and yes, especially all we cooks; we’re gonna go hungry this spring,” said Grayson Dyess. 

The Repercussions

Our mayor and the greater country keep saying service staff are only “temporarily unemployed due to coronavirus,” but we have no way of knowing how long this will go on. What will the landscape look like in the aftermath of COVID-19? Which restaurateurs will rebuild and survive when allowed to reopen? Which will be in debt or bankrupt? Where does their responsibility to their workers end? 

Jenna Mason has many of the same concerns. Jenna is a worker at Proud Larry’s, Saint Leo, SoLa, and the Graduate Hotel. “I don’t expect all our restaurants to survive, which means fewer jobs to go around after the immediate crisis settles down.”

Another local restaurant owner, who also asked to remain anonymous, is concerned about the future repercussions of possibly closing completely in the light of COVID-19. 

“Ultimately, we have a lot to lose, and without customers, we have no way to keep it.  It’s just that simple. But, it’s everybody. Not just restaurants. We could lose everything we have put into that restaurant. But, every business owner has money in their business that they could lose with this quarantine. We are concerned not just for us, but for everyone, because it takes all of us to have a good economy. And, a good economy is what we need to keep our restaurant.”

Social Distancing Wreaks Emotional Havoc

I am concerned about what unemployment means for service workers, beyond just the financial burden. With the cancelling of 12-step programs, Al-Anon, and in-person psychological services that many industry workers depend on, we should expect some additional struggles. Being cooped up will be hard on everyone, and in particular the service industry workers who feed off the energy of hospitality and community. 

“I am deeply concerned for the mental health of our industry employees (and employers). Typically we gather in restaurants and bars, or even while working, to process life and support each other. I think isolation coupled with the severe financial stress of this crisis could be too much for a population that already struggles with addiction and mental health issues far too often,” said Jenna Mason.

In fact, to help with the issue, Lee Ingram has created a petition to request Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) of Mississippi to cover the costs of “tele-therapy” sessions for those under their coverage. This sort of benefit adjustment needs to be considered more broadly than just BCBS, but it’s a start. Free online and streaming therapy options would do a tremendous service for everyone right now. Sign the petition here.

Read on to learn more about the many options popping up in our community that you can help with.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

“It’s just a bad storm we must get through. All of us—and more importantly our staff—will suffer until this storm passes and we all know it will [pass].” –Lee Harris, owner of Funky’s

Please contribute to one of the many opportunities (or start a new one!) to assist those in our community who are left unemployed in the middle of this pandemic. The two major sources available are: one, an excel spreadsheet hosted by Google Docs that is keeping up with available resources, everything from people willing to pick up groceries or offer rides, to free food and childcare, which you can access here. The other, a pdf from the McLean institute compiling local resources available to anyone, posted below. Both can be found online under the Oxford Hospitality Posse facebook group pages or by contacting Elizabeth Tettleton at Elizabeth.Tettleton@gmail.com

Grayson Dyess from Saint Leo said, “The only words I can really muster come from Mister Rogers: 

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ It is your turn to be the helper, friends. Be a neighbor.”

A Call to Action

If you are personally affected by these forced changes to the hospitality industry, please join the movement across the country when you post on social media by using #servicestimulus and #savefandb.

Please also call and write to your legislators in D.C., Mayor Tannehill, and Governor Tate Reeves:

Robyn Tannehill, Mayor of Oxford, Mississippi
Phone: 662-232-2340
Email: robyn@oxfordms.net or kara@oxfordms.net 
Website: http://www.oxfordms.net/visitors/welcome-from-the-mayor

Tate Reeves, Governor of Mississippi
Mail: P.O. Box 24355, Jackson, MS 39225
Email: info@tatereeves.com
Website: https://tatereeves.com/

Cindy Hyde-Smith, US Senator for the State of Mississippi
Website: https://www.hydesmith.senate.gov/
Oxford Office: 911 Jackson Ave., Rm. 249, Oxford, MS 38655
Phone: (662) 236-1018
Fax: (862) 236-7618

Roger Wicker, US Senator for the State of Mississippi
Website: https://www.wicker.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/
Tupelo Office: 330 West Jefferson Street, Suite B, Tupelo, MS 38804
P.O. Box 3777
Tupelo, MS 38803
Main: (662) 844-5010

Trent Kelly, District 1, US Representative for the State of Mississippi
Website: https://trentkelly.house.gov/
Oxford Office: 107 Courthouse Square, Oxford, MS 38655
Fax: (662) 328-5982
Cell: (662) 687-1540 – Robert Smith

This article was written by Elizabeth Tettleton for The Local Voice. She can be contacted at elizabeth.tettleton@gmail.com. Please feel free to reach out if you would like to express further opinions on her next article covering the Novel Coronavirus / COVID-19 that is affecting our country.

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