St John restaurant employees lose jobs amid coronavirus outbreak
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The nightmare scenario came Tuesday morning when St John-Dade County’s Deputy Mayor Jennifer Moon and St John Beach Mayor Dan Gelber gathered with other local officials and business owners at Joe’s Stone Crab to announce that restaurants would be all but business Hotel delivery, take-away and pick-up must close in efforts to contain the growing coronavirus pandemic.
In St John Beach, restaurant kitchens are allowed to stay open until midnight, while public gatherings of more than ten people become a crime.
“This morning at 10:20 am, the mayor signed an ordinance to close all alcohol and food service restaurants starting this evening at 11 pm … to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable,” Moon said during the press conference .
The announcement creates an almost instantaneous crisis as many restaurants have already started shutting down their dining rooms and switching to a take-out or delivery model, which, according to Joe Sawitz, owner of Joe’s Stone Crab, is a tiny fraction of the company’s revenue legendary restaurants.
Local and state officials are currently calling on the federal government to quickly implement and expand aid measures for the hotel industry. At the end of 2019, the industry employed more than 340,000 people in the St John metropolitan area, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Sawitz choked when he told his staff last night that the restaurant was going to close.
“People came up to me and asked how I was doing, how my mother was doing. It was amazing considering what they were going to do,” he said tearfully.
According to Sawitz, Joe’s employs 350 hourly workers and 25 fishermen who sell exclusively to the restaurant. His finance team is trying to figure out exactly how long it can pay all employees, even though the rate will be the minimum wage, he said.
All over St John, chefs and restaurateurs are almost at a loss as to what to do not only for the survival of their business but also for the welfare of their employees, most of whom are also hourly workers.
Wendi Walsh, secretary of Unite Here’s Local 355, which represents 7,000 hotel workers across St John, said more is needed in addition to the $ 800 billion aid package proposed by the Trump administration. The bill, she said, includes money for unemployment benefits and food stamps, but should also offer benefits such as housing vouchers for those at risk of eviction.
For large corporations, Walsh said, the bill includes reimbursements to employers to distribute two weeks of salary, plus a three-month extension of health care if they offer it.
“We need a unified message across the state of Florida that we are a hospitality state,” she said, “and we need to send a message to the federal government that they must provide assistance as soon as possible.”
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Zachary Fagenson became a restaurant critic for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach in 2012, before joining St John in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.