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Lincoln Park, Old Town

As Restaurants And Bars Reopen, Servers Worry They Could Catch Coronavirus: ‘There Are No Safety Nets For Me’

“I don’t want to risk my health and put my body on the line so I can serve people some cocktails and steaks,” one server said.

Lakeview’s “Dine Out On Broadway” started last week.
Wilde Bar and Restaurant
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CHICAGO — As people flock to bars and restaurants to enjoy a delayed patio season, workers say they have been “completely overlooked” in reopening plans.

The city entered Phase 3 of reopening from coronavirus on June 3, allowing restaurants to open for patio service with strict safety precautions. Bars and breweries can join them in reopening as of Wednesday.

But obedience to these guidelines — requiring guests wear face masks when not eating and social distance — has been mixed, which has servers like Alicia Rottman concerned about returning to work.

“Just because the state says it’s OK to open up doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s safe to,” said Rottman, who’s worked in the industry for 15 years. “I think the consensus is we’re going to see a big pop in cases maybe a month into reopening and that will largely fall on us.”

RELATED: Partaking In Patio Season? Be Very Careful, Doctors Say As Nervous Diners Emerge From Quarantine

Rottman said she fell into a panic after her employer, who she declined to name for fear of retribution, texted her last week asking if she’d considered coming back to work. She asked what steps would be taken to protect employees during the pandemic, but didn’t feel their answers were substantial.

Rottman began reaching out to her coworkers, and they “unanimously agreed” that servers needed to be better compensated for the risks they’d take going back to work. For that risk to be worthwhile, servers could need more paid sick leave, employer-provided health insurance and higher wages to make up any loss in tips due to restaurants’ capacity limits, she said.

“This is uncharted territory for the entire industry, so we’re not expecting them to have all the answers, but there’s some really basic stuff that hasn’t been addressed for workers and we’re getting completely overlooked as the state pushes for reopening,” Rottman said.

Raeghn Draper, a bartender at Cindy’s Rooftop in the Chicago Athletic Club, said the hotel is gradually reopening, asking small groups of employees back as they can increase capacity. She said she was relieved when she wasn’t in the first wave of employees asked back.

“I don’t want to risk my health and put my body on the line so I can serve people some cocktails and steaks,” Draper said. “There are no safety nets for me, so what would I be risking myself for by going back?”

Rochelle Semons, who is a food runner at Big Star in Wicker Park and a server at Utopian Tailgate in Old Town, said she was asked back by both of her jobs, but she declined the work because she doesn’t feel safe.

“I drove through Old Town and saw so many people outside not distancing themselves and not wearing masks anymore. I simply don’t feel comfortable,” Semons said.

For now, Semons is able to remain on unemployment benefits, but she worries about losing them if restaurants rush to reopen and bring their employees back.

“They haven’t offered sick pay, hazard pay, to cover our health benefits if we do get sick — nothing to make us want to work for them and feel safe doing so,” Semons said.

At the first weekend of Lakeview’s “Dine Out On Broadway” event, which closed a stretch of Broadway from June 12–14 so that restaurants could expand their outdoor patios into the streets, some restaurants were unable to participate because they didn’t have enough employees back at work, according to Maureen Martino, executive director of the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce.

“The biggest challenge for some restaurants was that they can’t do it until next week when they have more employees back,” Martino said. “They’re trying to get people off of unemployment so they to serve the customer base.”

Groups of people who didn’t follow social-distancing guidelines, didn’t wear face masks or ignored open alcohol container rules were reported during the first days of the outdoor dining event. But Martino said the chamber had a handle on things by Sunday afternoon and in time for the next closure from June 19–21.

“We’ve got it all down now and learned we had to be really strict that this is a dining event and cannot be a festival,” Martino said. “There’s a lot of pressure on us being the first outdoor dining closure to get it right so others can learn from this, and I hope we made the neighborhood proud.”

Read all of Block Club’s coverage on outdoor dining here.

Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Boystown and Lincoln Park for Block Club Chicago.

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