The Way We Work Now is a series chronicling how people’s lives and careers have fundamentally changed because of the pandemic.
Justin is a twentysomething server in a conservative pocket of Palm Beach, Florida. He spoke to Mai Tran about returning to work in a state where Covid-19 cases have topped 870,000.
I started working at a family-owned bar and restaurant in Palm Beach County, Florida, in the beginning of March. When I got there it was already in the “we don’t really know what’s going to happen” stage. In mid-April, we got the order to go into lockdown, and by May 8 or 9, we went right back to indoor dining. Inside the restaurant, we were doing half capacity, so every other table was available, but outside was pretty much full capacity. Customers weren’t allowed to dine indoors without masks, but there weren’t any restrictions outside. The restaurant added four or five new outdoor tables to try to make up for the indoor losses.
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When we first reopened, I felt safe going back. Because the lockdown had ended, I thought the number of cases was going down, but as time went on nothing was changing. If anything, the numbers were going up and we were being less careful. Bartenders were getting lazy with their masks, and we were starting to have more people at the bar than we were probably allowed to. We used to close early, then a month and a half ago we went back to normal hours. We also went back to full capacity, so it was an open bar and every table was available.
They would talk about the death toll and infectivity like it wasn’t a big deal or it was being exaggerated.
As of September 25, there’s no longer a mandatory mask mandate in the state of Florida. The managers enforced their own rules, but a lot of employees and customers wanted to take their masks off or wouldn’t wear them as much because they thought it was annoying. We had one customer one night who hung out at the bar and gave people flyers about how the coronavirus is a hoax.
There were definitely other people at the bar who had similar opinions. Palm Beach is one of the counties in Florida that voted blue, but I live in a red pocket in downtown Lake Worth. You could tell when somebody had conservative opinions. They were more likely to complain about wearing masks, and they would talk about the death toll and infectivity like it wasn’t a big deal or it was being exaggerated.
I think that the governor and the state of Florida, or the federal government even, should be taking a stance on this. If they don’t, they’re just letting the fend-for-yourself mentality thrive. Businesses that don’t need help are going to be balancing profits over safety or trying to find a balance between the two, which my restaurant did to a certain degree. But some businesses are going to say, “If it’s not a rule, screw the safety and masks.” Because I live in a red pocket, people are going to like that, and every business that’s competing will have to end up also being fully open. That could hurt people and cause spikes in the coronavirus, which is what we’re seeing in Florida ever since Gov. DeSantis removed the mask mandate.
The business I worked at actually made sure we were getting stimuluses or some kind of assistance during the lockdown. It was great to see they were being helped with government grants, and then taking care of the employees at the same time. But it all seemed to come to a halt in one moment, and there’s never going to be more aid at this point. DeSantis is wholly against the idea. Some businesses I followed were making GoFundMes and asking for donations. They were given a lot of money, but at the end of the day, their business went under. It was tough and it didn’t seem fair that some businesses got aid and some didn’t. When the governor makes the baseline “We’re not going to do anything about safety and every business gets to decide for themself,” he’s basically saying, “We’re not going to help you.” And that’s just not something every business can handle.