The Emotional Toll of COVID-19 on the Hospitality Community - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

The Emotional Toll of COVID-19 on the Hospitality Community

Story: Paul Clarke

Photo: Sean Muldoon

“Hey, how are you?” asks Kat Kinsman. “No, really—give me the real answer. How’s it going?” This is how conversations with Kinsman start during these long days of COVID-19 quarantine. For Kinsman—a senior editor at Food & Wine and founder of Chefs With Issues, and a longtime advocate for mental health care in the hospitality industry—the widespread closure of bars and restaurants due to the coronavirus pandemic is creating a tidal wave of catastrophe for these workers. And with these closures likely remaining in place for many more weeks or months, bar and restaurant workers are facing a very bleak future. “Everybody’s screwed right now, full stop,” she says. “Nobody is coming out of this amazing. There may be some silver linings, but nobody’s mistaking this for being positive whatsoever.”

From a mental health perspective, working in bars and restaurants is challenging enough under normal conditions. High-pressure environments, a relatively transient work force, unusual hours, low pay, and a lack of benefits including health insurance—in the hospitality industry, these things all typically combine in an environment that’s conducive to a hard-partying lifestyle, and that’s forgiving (or even wink-wink supportive) of alcohol and drug abuse.

That combination is predictably volatile even in the best of cases. But in March, when governments mandated that restaurants and bars close indefinitely to stop the spread of coronavirus, tens of thousands of hospitality workers lost not only their income, but in many cases their social networks, and their sense of purpose. Stuck at home under quarantine, often without friends or family in the household, many of these workers are finding themselves alone in dealing with the stress and anxiety. And for those who may have already struggled with mental health issues, as well as drug or alcohol abuse, the situation can be truly critical.

“Isolation is the enemy of sobriety and mental health,” Kinsman says. “If you’ve worked in the industry, you have a work family, and there’s a daily accountability to show up and have your mise en place ready, and everything else. But what do you do now? It’s like coming home from the military, and not having that structure—what do you do with your time? Some of that stuff is present already, people dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues. And if you don’t have that structure anymore, what do you do?”

For Jack McGarry, a co-owner of The Dead Rabbit in New York City, and another advocate for mental health care among bar workers, the situation is frightening. “A lot of these people are social beings, and they find comfort in this industry,” he says. “Their whole structure has been ripped up. For a lot of them, drinking is a big thing—that’s just the reality of the situation. I’ve seen on social media, people tagging each other to do shots, and that’s very concerning—people are just sitting in their apartment doing shots by themselves.”

During the first week or two of closures, McGarry says, there was a bit of novelty among bar workers to being home all day. But with the closures entering their second month in many places, the novelty has long since worn off. “Now, it’s drinking and worrying about rent,” McGarry says. “I’ve been telling my team, control the controllables—focus on what you can do. I’m a firm believer in routines—have some exercise for your body, your mind, your spirit, and use this as a time to improve yourselves. Do online courses, read books, go on long runs—I’ve been trying to champion that, but part of it feels like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Everything around them is crumbling, so finding an anchor for them during this time is crucial.”

For bar owners like McGarry, the coming weeks and months are critical. Not only are they trying to work in a shifting landscape in order to save their businesses, but they’re trying to find ways to help staff members find the support they need during some very dark days. “Being a bartender or a server is a very structured job,” says Anu Apte-Elford, owner of Rob Roy in Seattle and, with her husband Chris Elford, co-owner of Navy Strength, Vinny’s, and No Anchor. “It’s very timeline-oriented—you get there at a certain time, you do this for an hour, and the next four hours are doing that. It’s very structured, and we do that on purpose. But now you’re going from being social and talking to people all day, and you’re home and you don’t have that structure. That ritual of opening the door, the ritual of last call is so important to people—all of those things are gone. Now bartenders are home, and I know some people are missing that last-call vibe at 2 a.m., so instead of watching as their patrons knocked back drinks so they could leave, they’re doing the drinking themselves.”

As the COVID-19 outbreak appears to stabilize in some places—the so-called flattening of the curve—many professionals in the industry are now looking further down the line, at what the long-term human costs of these closures might mean. “I’m worried we’re going to lose more people from all the secondary stuff,” says Maggie Campbell, vice president and distiller for Privateer Rum in Massachusetts. “This is all very triggering, and it’s stirred up a lot of trauma. You just reach for those unhealthy coping mechanisms so quickly.”

Campbell says the way the coronavirus crisis is hitting the hospitality industry is, in a way, creating a perfect storm of problems for these workers. “When your purpose is gone, your daily rituals are totally disrupted, plus you’re under financial pressure, and feeling the shame of needing a food bank—that gets really difficult,” she says. “And if you’re already struggling with depression, and you’re breaking these patterns, getting disconnected from your social network? White men of a certain age are the highest demographic for suicide in America, and that’s the same demographic as a lot of bartenders. I’m really worried for these people.”

In this shifting environment, bar owners and mental health advocates are trying to find solutions. For Apte-Elford, who was forced to convert a scheduled March 16 staff rum training into a meeting in which everyone was temporarily laid off, getting mental health support for the staff was a priority. “We want them to come back,” she says. “I saw the look on their faces, and felt the energy in the room drop. I knew that we had to do something that let them know that we care about their mental health, and we’re open to talking about this.” In this case, helping out meant setting up a GoFundMe campaign for her staff, that would raise resources to help cover ongoing medical insurance for staff members, and that would pay for online therapy sessions.

Kinsman overwhelmingly supports such efforts but emphasizes that the enormous need demands a significant and sweeping governmental response. “Federal funding has to come through—there are grassroots groups that are doing amazing jobs at patching the holes and getting funding to workers, especially undocumented workers who aren’t eligible for other benefits,” she says. “And I have to hand it to the liquor companies—some of them have stepped up in a huge way, like with the Lee Initiative that Maker’s Mark is backing. These are all emergency funds—but unless all of this federal help comes together in some kind of equitable way, that assistance is going to run out.”

In the interim, Kinsman wants hospitality workers to know that there are ways to find help. “If someone is in immediate danger of making a scary and permanent decision, it’s not really a good idea to go to an ER right now, but there’s the crisis text line, 741741, and there’s a counselor there,” she says. “I’ve done the training and volunteered there, and it’s a very special organization, they talk you through that difficult moment and are often able to guide you to local resources. There’s also the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline [1-800-273-TALK]—it’s triage at this point.”

Ben’s Friends is my go-to for substance abuse,” she continues. “It’s a coalition of people who understand, because they work in hospitality. It started in Charleston and has groups across the country now, they’re doing Zoom meetings both regionally and nationally, because it’s a stopgap measure for the face to face meetings. They also have a Facebook group, and local volunteers who are ready to get on the phone. For other resources, Paul Finn, the manager at Garage bar in Austin, has Personal Mise en Place—he’s had that set up for a while, it’s having that same kind of common language. The people at CHOW [Culinary Hospitality Outreach & Wellness Group] in Colorado are doing Zoom meetings on mental health and recovery. The Lovett Center in Houston is offering a clinician-led support group for food and beverage members through April 30. The Giving Kitchen in Georgia is providing a range of resources including suicide prevention training, and A Balanced Glass is a really good community, they come from the wine community. And there’s a thing called In the Rooms, with recovery meetings of all different sorts, available by Zoom.”

McGarry notes that systems are adapting very quickly to the COVID-19 challenge. “New York State has a resource on their website of therapists and psychologists who can help—I know there are a lot of high-caliber therapists who are donating their time to help deal with the anxiety and depression,” he says. “For addictive behavior with drugs and alcohol, AA has adapted their infrastructure to go on Zoom, a lot of those meetings are available. That’s even a bigger thing about taking the stigma out of going to an AA meeting in person—I hope they look at that down the road, it makes it easier for people to get those resources.”

And there are things that workers can do on their own to stay healthy while at home. “Another thing I’m advocating is meditation—it’s really beneficial to slow things down and calm your mind,” McGarry says, noting that the popular Headspace app has made some of its meditations and wellness exercises free in response to the crisis. “The other piece of putting your mind at ease is making sure you’re aware of what you’re entitled to under the stimulus act, and the resources that liquor companies are offering in assistance. Make sure you know your rights as tenants with rent freezes. And limit your relationship with news—it’s overwhelmingly negative right now. Give it 15 or 20 minutes a couple of times the day so you know you’re aware of the key issues. And the opposite side of all mental health issues is connection. Make sure you’re connected to your networks—your friends, family, peers. Phone people, check in. I had a Zoom call with four guys I know who are sober in this industry, and the weight on my back was cut in half with that call.”

At a time when millions of people are ordered to stay home, so many social connections have been severed. Kinsman agrees that trying to stitch those connections back together is essential to getting through this crisis—and to moving ahead when the crisis eventually passes. “It’s so easy to collapse into yourself,” she says. “When I’m in a depressive spiral, I don’t want to talk to anyone. I think the best thing we can do for ourselves and each other, is just text someone—check in on them, and have them check in on you. Let them know to give you the real answer when you ask, ‘How’s it going?’ There can’t be shame and stigma about this—everyone is dealing with this right now.”

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