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One last meal at Big Pink before it closes.
One last meal at Big Pink before it closes.
Photo by Zachary Fagenson

Miami Workers Face Bleak Uncertainty as Restaurants Close

The nightmare scenario arrived Tuesday morning when Miami-Dade County Deputy Mayor Jennifer Moon and Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber gathered with other local officials and business owners at Joe's Stone Crab to announce that restaurants must close all operations except delivery, takeout, and pickup in an effort to curb the growing coronavirus pandemic.

In Miami Beach, restaurant kitchens are allowed to remain open until midnight, while public gatherings of more than ten people will become a crime.

"At 10:20 this morning, the mayor signed an executive order that, effective tonight at 11 p.m., all alcohol and food services eateries should close... to help ensure the safety of those most at risk," Moon said during the press conference.

The announcement sets off an almost instant crisis as many restaurants already began shuttering their dining rooms and moving to a takeout or delivery model, which Joe's Stone Crab owner Steve Sawitz says makes up only a tiny fraction of the iconic restaurant's earnings.

At the moment, local and state officials are calling for the federal government to implement and expand relief for the hospitality industry rapidly. In late 2019, the industry employed more than 340,000 people in the Miami metropolitan area, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Sawitz choked up as he recounted telling his staff last night that the restaurant would shut down.

"People came up to me and asked how I was doing, how my mother was doing. It was unbelievable given all they're facing," he said through tears.

Sawitz said Joe's employs 350 hourly workers as well as 25 fishermen who sell exclusively to the restaurant. His financial team is trying to figure out exactly how long it can pay all of the employees, though the rate will be minimum wage, he said.

Across Miami, chefs and restaurateurs are almost at a loss as to what to do for not only the survival of their businesses but also the well-being of their employees, most of whom are also hourly workers.

Wendi Walsh, secretary of Unite Here's Local 355, which represents 7,000 hospitality workers across Miami, said more is needed in addition to the Trump administration's proposed $800 billion relief package. The bill, she said, includes money for unemployment benefits and food stamps but should also offer benefits such as housing vouchers for those at risk of eviction.

For large companies, Walsh said, the bill includes reimbursements for employers to distribute two weeks of salary as well as a three-month extension of healthcare if they offer it.

"We need a unified message across the state of Florida that we are a hospitality state," she said, "and we need to send a message to the federal government that they need to move relief as quickly as possible."

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