Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. Health

‘Scary time in my life': Restaurant workers navigate food service and COVID-19

Facing angry customers and unprecedented health risks, three Tampa Bay food service workers share what it means to go to work during a pandemic.
Glen Jones, 54, a part-time cook at Punky's poses, Monday, June 29, 2020 outside of the business in St. Petersburg. Jones says he is immune compromised and got a part-time job because he has not received his stimulus check yet.
Glen Jones, 54, a part-time cook at Punky's poses, Monday, June 29, 2020 outside of the business in St. Petersburg. Jones says he is immune compromised and got a part-time job because he has not received his stimulus check yet. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Jul. 2, 2020
Updated Jul. 4, 2020

When restaurants reopened, Glen Jones questioned whether he should return to work.

Jones, 54, struggles with several major medical complications and has been receiving government disability benefits for 10 years. He knew his health could not take another hit.

However, his stimulus check still has yet to arrive and he’s behind on rent. Ultimately, his need to pay the bills won out.

Jones, a line cook for Punky’s Bar and Grill in St. Petersburg, feels safer working in the kitchen, but he’s concerned about staff who interact with customers.

Though a county ordinance requiring patrons to wear masks also gives him some comfort, Jones worries about ways the virus is potentially transmitted, whether it be through masks without proper filters or the exchange of cash.

Glen Jones, 54, is a part-time cook at Punky's in St. Petersburg.
Glen Jones, 54, is a part-time cook at Punky's in St. Petersburg. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

“Our biggest concern is people coming from the outside street and passing money to the wait staff, who passed it to the front, who then passes it to the back,” he said.

As part of the statewide response to the coronavirus pandemic in March, Florida’s restaurants shuttered their dining rooms, leaving about 598,000 food service workers unemployed, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Since then, Gov. Ron DeSantis has allowed restaurants and bars to reopen at increasing capacity — earlier than most other states — but some restaurant workers question whether returning to work is worth the health risks. Those who put their aprons back on navigate a new world of anxieties and tension.

Since reopening, Punky’s has required every employee to test their temperature and fill out a questionnaire about their health before beginning the day’s shift. Every day, Jones studies the board on which staffers report their temperature, keeping an eye out for numbers outside of the normal range, he said.

Masks have been a must for all employees, Jones said, though that has made working in an often muggy and active kitchen more difficult.

Matthew McKinley, 59, worked in restaurants and bars since he was a teenager. When the Chill Restaurant and Bar in St. Pete Beach temporarily closed in March, he assessed that the pandemic would render food service work unsafe for a long time.

“I never received unemployment benefits and at 59, I don’t plan to start now,” McKinley said.

Matthew McKinley, 59, of St. Petersburg, works at the front desk of the Williams Park Hotel. McKinley worked in the restaurant business for 40 years but left the business because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Matthew McKinley, 59, of St. Petersburg, works at the front desk of the Williams Park Hotel. McKinley worked in the restaurant business for 40 years but left the business because of the coronavirus pandemic. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

He applied to work at 7-Eleven, where he was assigned the overnight shift due his compromised immune system and need to interact with fewer people. But the business suspended its overnight hours, so McKinley applied to work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency packaging goods for people facing poverty or homelessness.

“I lasted a day,” he said. “They had signs that said social distancing, but everyone was elbow-to-elbow.”

McKinley now works as the concierge for the Williams Park Hotel in St. Petersburg, where he also lives.

Chill has yet to resume its dine-in service, but McKinley understands. He believes that keeping restaurants and bars closed is “the only way to save lives.”

His greatest love has always been food and drink service, however, and losing it was devastating, he said.

“It’s a scary time in my life,” he said. “I miss the restaurant, having done it for 40 years. The sense of being alone and not being able to do what you know you can do well is unleveling.”

Skye Horgen, 21, who works as a server at BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse in Clearwater, never considered voluntarily stopping work.

She deems herself relatively healthy, and the amount that she makes from working exceeds unemployment benefits.

When BJ’s was only open for delivery and curbside pick-up, Horgen collected orders on the phone, packaged meals and ran food to people’s cars. Now that dine-in has resumed, she is earning tips again — half of what she used to make — but she also worries about confrontations with uncooperative customers.

Skye Horgen works at BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse in Clearwater.
Skye Horgen works at BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse in Clearwater. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Patrons were open about their displeasure with coronavirus countermeasures even before they were required to wear masks.

“‘It’s hard for us servers to run around wearing masks and be hot, and some customers had sympathy, but there were other people who were like, ‘it’s a hoax, it’s so dumb you have to wear that stupid mask and gloves, they don’t do anything anyways,’” she said.

In effect, the county mask ordinance requires that people wear the mask when walking into the restaurant and to the bathroom, but allows for them to be taken off while people sit at the tables spaced four feet apart or with barriers between them, Horgen said.

The ordinance makes her feel a lot safer working in the dining room.

When only employees were required to wear masks, she felt unfairly put at risk.

“I’m wearing a mask and protecting other people from spreading it to you, but it’s not being done the same for us,” Horgen said.

While most customers have been respectful of the mask and social distancing guidelines, Horgen said, others take out their disagreement with the government and restaurant’s response to the pandemic on the wait staff.

These customers have angrily accused Horgen and her coworkers of “infringing on their American rights and freedoms,” she said.

“It’s like they haven’t seen anything that’s been going on in the news,” she said. “It’s kind of shocking.”

In an effort to reduce the amount of interpersonal contact in the restaurant, BJ’s limits each waiter to serving four tables at a time, as opposed to the five to seven tables they would serve in normal times. Servers are now responsible for plating, bussing and running food to their own tables. Former food runners and bussers have been reassigned as “sanitation specialists,” who clean the tables and chairs after each party and wipe down the front and bathroom doors every 15-20 minutes, Horgen said.

Even though she is serving fewer tables, Horgen said the additional responsibilities and occasional conflict with difficult customers often leave her more tired after a shift than she was before the pandemic.

“At the end of the day, we’re just trying to do our jobs. It’s a shame because a lot of the people who are begging to have us open for dine-in are the same people who are complaining about having to wear masks,” she said. “They want to reopen but they don’t want to do the things required for us to stay open in these times.”

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

HOW CORONAVIRUS IS SPREADING IN FLORIDA: Find the latest numbers for your county, city or zip code.

THE CORONAVIRUS SCRAPBOOK: We collected your stories, pictures, songs, recipes, journals and more to show what life has been like during the pandemic.

SO YOU WANT TO LEAVE YOUR HOUSE? Read these 10 tips first

UNEMPLOYMENT Q&A: We answer your questions about Florida unemployment benefits

GET THE DAYSTARTER MORNING UPDATE: Sign up to receive the most up-to-date information.

HAVE A TIP?: Send us confidential news tips

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.