Throughout the Coachella Valley area, restaurant managers and employees are struggling to maintain structure at work, as COVID-19 continuously spreads.
The coronavirus has affected nearly the entire country with 13 million Americans infected and 265 thousand lives lost since its initial outbreak in February. The virus also proven to be the silent killer of most essential businesses, causing local restaurants significant financial decline and loss of employees.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 150,000 businesses have indicated that they have closed due to COVID-19, 20,000 of which are restaurants in California. Many of these restaurants are large corporation chains and small, family-owned businesses.
A Red Robin burger chain in Coachella Valley, run by general manager Vanessa Cruz, is still reeling from five separate mandatory lockdowns since March, including the most recent closure as of three weeks ago. Even with a decade’s worth of experience, Cruz is still finding it difficult to adjust to the changing procedures amidst a global pandemic.
“Everyone was under the impression that we would be closed for a month or two,” said Cruz, a mother of two. “Being closed again was a shock, but it’s nothing we can’t handle. Our priority is keeping our guests safe by making sure we are following all the correct steps and keeping our restaurant up to date with the county’s expectations.”
California’s Governor, Gavin Newsom, recently announced that Riverside County’s classification status had returned to purple, meaning many non-essential indoor business operations were closed once again. Cruz’s restaurant has now suffered three lockdowns, where nearly all forms of dining closed completely, leaving Red Robin’s main profit source in the hands of take-out orders.
21-year-old Angel Aispuro started working as a to-go host at Red Robin a little over a year ago. He was promoted to server merely months after the first closure where there weren’t even any tables or guests to tend to.
“It was easy to understand how confused and annoyed people got, us included, when we first closed down,” Aispuro said. “I remember the second time we went down to outdoor-dining and it almost become routine for us to set up the tables and suddenly pack it all up for when the county became restricted again. Now, we are just doing everything we can to avoid another shutdown and keep our doors open as long as possible.”
After having been closed for weeks and still holding onto hope, restaurants throughout the Coachella Valley area returned to ‘lockdown’ status and are facing even more restrictions than before.
“Newsom announcing another lockdown came with a whole new set of procedures and guidelines for us to follow,” said Cruz. “We can no longer sit more than six people at a table outside, we’ve expanded our outdoor seating area to nearly half of our parking lot, and our seating protocol has changed drastically. We are doing everything we can to keep our environment feeling as safe and normal as possible.”
The weight of responsibility on managers and business owners has grown tremendously as their day-to-day work went from monitoring food and staff, to potentially saving lives. Managers are now having to enforce strict hygiene regulations and protocols to ensure the safety of all staff and guests.
These protocols were not enough and a majority of the restaurants throughout the desert area that were closed temporarily in March will not be returning. Soup Plantation, a popular buffet-style restaurant, is one of the 44 restaurants to have permanently shut down in California due to the coronavirus.
Ashley Shipman, the former shift supervisor of a Soup Plantation located in Palm Desert, was not prepared for the events following her businesses’ initial closure mid-March. Restaurants are not aware of how to handle buffet-style dining, and most businesses operating in this fashion have been closed permanently.
“It’s crazy to think about how fast everything happened and how quickly restaurants all around us were closing their doors,” said Shipman, who has not yet heard any news regarding her restaurant. “It’s hard watching a whole business pretty much shut down, especially when you know yours wasn’t the only one. Financially, there was no possible way we could keep a buffet up and running during a pandemic.”
With thousands of restaurants permanently closed or now only open for takeout and outdoor-seating, California’s unemployment numbers peaked in April reaching nearly 3.1 million; however, according to the Department of Numbers, that number has since dropped 5.4 percentage points after the economy added 120,000 new jobs.
Sebastian Perez, a 20-year-old busser who started working at Soup Plantation five months before they shut down in March, says that his first job was nothing like he expected. He has since started a new job in a different field but says that he is constantly worried about losing work again.
“Bussing tables was my first job ever at Soup Plantation – it was so fun,” said Perez, who has since started a new job in hotel management. “After all of the masks, gloves, face-shields and sanitizing, we thought everything would be okay. We were angry, and still are angry, that our work relied more on people eating than keeping them safe.”
With most restaurants in the Coachella Valley area out of business, it is important for those with their doors still open to be as safe as possible. Both managers agree that the best thing to do, regardless of on unemployment or not, it to make everything as normal as possible for your employees while sticking to the hygiene protocols.
“As managers, we work really hard to try and make our restaurant as comfortable and safe as possible, especially now,” Cruz said. “We still celebrate birthdays and hold little competitions between employees. We all want the same thing – for the threat to be gone and everything go back to normal.”
There is no definite status outcome of Coachella’s restaurant industry; however, with an average of 110 new cases a day in Riverside County, according to USAFacts, now more than ever, business owners need to be vigilant.
“I’m not sure I’m in any position to provide advice given my workplace got shut down, but I would just tell people to keep in mind that the future is so unpredictable,” Shipman said, still unsure of her path in the restaurant industry. “Now is definitely not to the time to be ‘lax’ about procedures by letting people act like nothing has even happened. For all the active managers out there, I encourage you to act as though you are managing a room full of your own children.”