The Smoke Eater For March 16, 2020

Buckle up, buckaroos.

Good morning, this is The Smoke Eater for Monday, March 16, 2020, and I put on Lysol before I get dressed.

Quick Hit

* An op-ed from a service industry employee. *

NOTE: I’m sorry, but I don’t have a lot of time to edit today, I was on the phone all night talking to sources (after working a bar all weekend). Lucky for you The Smoker Eater is mobile friendly, totally free, and 100% supported by super awesome readers. If you want to be super awesome, tip me on Ko-Fi, or subscribe to my Patreon!

Stay Gold, Pony Boy

Local officials across the U.S. are taking dramatic actions to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. After Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered all bars and restaurants to close, limiting operations to take out and delivery, last night New York City and Los Angeles followed suit. It now seems that the states of New York, New Jersey Connectitcut are doing the same. Former US government healthcare officials and advisors published an op-ed this morning that cautions people to stay home.

"This is a marathon, not a spring," they write. "It may be in your community now or it may be soon. Until you hear otherwise from health care officials, even if you have no symptoms. That means avoiding play dates, sleepovers, bars, restaurants, parties or houses of worship. Avoid all crowds."

These unprecedented actions have hit the workers in the service industry hard. We feel for our personal safety, our loved ones and customers, but there's a real fear and unease about being able to pay our bills.

"I'm close to being out of the job," a friend confided in me shortly after learning Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered all city bars to cut their max capacity in half, and no more than 100 people in total, just before most bars and restaurants began Sunday service. The drastic measures came after people ignored the pleading of officials and health professionals to practice social distancing; instead packing themselves into bars for the St. Patrick's Day weekend.

Though some did this out of a misguided sense of civic duty, some felt it a matter of ethnic pride to get hammered while wearing silly green hat. Others acted in complete partisan stupidity under the assumption that the best way to really stick it to the libs was through public libations (and shitty tips).

After finishing my own bar shift last night I was stunned to see the Centers for Disease Control recommending a moratorium on all gatherings of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks.

My first thought was "Good, it's about time." When a friend in New York told me some bars and restaurants were incentivizing patrons with freebies I thought he was joking. I'd personally been wearing rubber gloves during my shifts for the past two weeks in anticipation of just such a health crisis. Several of my colleagues rolled their eyes and made good jokes at my expense, and at several points this weekend I even sent out a few shitposts making light of the situation.

Our bar wasn’t taking any chances this weekend, and instituted strict cleaning policies. No cash, no coasters, nitrile exam gloves at all times, and rigorous handwashing. The bar, chairs and tables got wiped down with isopropyl alcohol after each guest. We regularly sanitized bathrooms, light switches, door handles, windows, the dishwasher, touch screens, cellphones, even the cheap pens used to sign checks. More than one customer wrinkled their face and commented that our bar -- known for its cleanliness under normal circumstances -- now smelled like a hospital. "Good," I said with a stone face.

But the bar industry is also the only steady gig I and my peers have right now. Like most millennials, we're drowning in student loan debt, struggling to make rent each month. But there's also the back of house gigs, like line cooks and bussers, often staffed by non-English speaking immigrants who take home even less than the front of house.

The front of house may be able to file for unemployment benefits, but the back of the house might not. Despite the risks, it's still common practice in the industry to utilize undocumented labor and pay them under the table. I know several people who work back of house in Chicago alone who are legal residents bu are afraid to file for unemployment or go to a food pantry because they worry about the ICE agents.

While some folks in the work-from-home crowd may smugly chastise the practice, they should be aware of the reality that the service sector comprises sizeable chunk to the U.S. economy. In 2018, there were over 11 million people in the food and beverage industry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and those jobs compose about five percent of the U.S. economy. A 2017 report from the non-partisan Committee for Economic Development says the food and beverage industry touches 320 million Americans, and generates $164 billion alone.

And this is just the data and reporting I've been able to cobble together this morning before my final bar shift. The owners, operators, and staff of bars and restaurants across in Chicago and other major cities are congratulating their local leaders for taking decisive action, but more is needed. We need emergency unemployment benefits for all hourly and salaried workers, rent and loan abatement, and payroll tax cuts.

One More Thing...

I don't blame the local officials following the advice of health professionals. They're facing a situation that is almost impossible for many to comprehend: literal life and death decisions that affect millions of people. They are being forced to perform triage on entire communities.

If we're to point any fingers it should be towards the Trump administration. Two months ago global health officials were raising alarms about a highly infectious and deadly virus that the Chinese government seemed to be covering up. The Republican party and the Trump administration ignored the problem and downplayed the risks -- a response that contradicts the actions taken during other public health crises for decades -- in fear of upsetting the stock market and jeopardizing the president's reelection chances.

On January 22, Trump lied, saying, "We have it under control." One week late the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a "public-health emergency of international concern." A few weeks later White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow lied when he said the administration an "air tight" seal on the spread of the virus. Donald Trump lied repeatedly throughout February, going to far as to call the virus a "hoax" during a rally. Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar lied two weeks ago about the availability of testing kits that the administration botched. On Saturday Texas Sen. John Cornyn tweeted a picture of himself drinking a Corona beer at a restaurant. Yesterday Rep. Devin Nunes went on national TV and encouraged people to go out and drink at their local pubs.

This kind of irresponsible behavior will kill people. Future generations need to remember the abysmal failures of these greedy, power-hungry sociopaths who exploited their public charge for personal gain. It should be etched onto the memorial plaques we'll have to erect next to the mass graves.

OK, now here's a warm and fuzzy critter video: POLAR BEAR CUBS!

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