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WLRN Connects: Restaurant and Hotel Workers Adapt to the New Normal

Steven Perricone
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Steven Perricone, right, seals up bags of meals, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020, at his Perricone's Marketplace & Cafe restaurant in Miami. Restaurants in Miami-Dade County are allowed to reopen side dining rooms at 50 percent capacity as of August 31 after being closed since early July. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Hospitality workers have been on the front line of the economic and health risks from COVID-19. How have their jobs changed, and how are they protecting themselves as customers return?

Restaurant dining rooms in Miami-Dade can partially reopen Monday. It marks the first time in almost two months diners can eat inside restaurants. Restaurants in Palm Beach, Broward and Monroe counties have been open for weeks, but limited to half the diners.

It marks a step toward a return to a new normal, especially for restaurant workers.

WLRN Connects spoke with restaurant servers, bartenders and a hotel manager about adapting to how the pandemic has changed hospitality.

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Bartender Gustavo Peña and server Kesha Scott both told WLRN they've taken the time over the last several months to study and train in fields outside of the hospitality business, in order to have more potential options.

"You'd be dumb enough to think about it because this is a new normal where the restaurants and hotel, food and beverage [are going] — it's never going to be the same," said Peña.

Things like giving sugar and water to customers are no longer thoughtless exercises in the COVID-19 era. There's no more handing all the packets to sugar to a customer and taking them back. "Cross contamination is one of the biggest issues when it comes to service," said Peña. That requires more communication on the front end, as work flows have been forced to adapt to the situation.

Scott lost her job as a salaried management position at a restaurant at the beginning of the pandemic. Recently she found work again at a restaurant in Boynton Beach.

"It's almost like the service industry is really hanging on, you know, pins and needles. And it's heartbreaking because I'm such an advocate for — I'm being in 15 — I'm going on 20 years with it," said Scott. "You would think that there would be a little more compassion on the other side of it, but it's almost like it got worse on the part of the customers."

Some customers aren't mindful of the staff they interact with as they eat and drink without masks, said Scott. To handle the situation, staff has to actively manage the clients, striking a balance between keeping themselves safe and maintaining a positive customer experience.

"You have to smile really hard. They can see your cheeks perfectly," Scott said.

As of January, the hospitality industry employed over 350,000 people across South Florida. But by July, an estimated third of those jobs had been wiped away by the pandemic and its closures and shutdowns.

That led Lee Schrager, of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, to help set up the Florida International University Hospitality Industry Relief Fund as a way to help struggling workers.

The fund has raised and distributed more than $1.5 million to industry workers in South Florida, through their workplaces. Miami-Dade County has given $5 million more to the fund to be distributed to impacted workers.

Schrager told WLRN he sees the fund as a way to help bridge the industry to better days ahead, as it begins planning for the high season.

"I think that restaurants are doing everything that they can to hold on. I think that the community wants to support these restaurants," he said. "I'm confident that as things get better, they will get better. But I'm also concerned for those small places that just can't make through it."

Oscar Ortiz works at Junior's Gourmet Burgers in Miami Springs, and he benefitted from the relief fund. The money, in turn, helped his whole family, he said.

"My father was actually let go from his job because of obviously stuff slowing down in general with the economy and everything. And as a result, he needed me to help with paying some of the bills around the house with regards to like bills and stuff like that," said Ortiz.

At home, Ortiz' younger brother has asthma, which puts him more at risk of serious illness if he contracts COVID-19. As a result, Ortiz takes the safety aspect of his on-and-off hours seriously. After interacting with customers, he makes sure to wipe down handles and door knobs that he touches when he gets home.

Trudy Bowden manages two hotels in Key West — Orchid Key Inn and Almond Tree Inn. Bookings have been creeping up, but the hotels have had to make adjustments. The hotel no longer offers extended checkout times, and has pushed back its check-in time in order to give more time for a full clean. Rooms are rotated when the hotel is not full so, whenever possible, guests stay in rooms that were not recently occupied.

"There's definitely been some challenges to to go over. The occupancy has definitely been down. Although the weekends are looking much more better as we do get some local Floridians coming down," she said.

More of those bookings from fellow Floridians have been coming at the last minute, said Bowden, something she attributes to people waiting to see how the situation is before they make a trip.

For the upcoming long weekend, the Key West hotels could finally hit a milestone that they haven't seen in months, she projected.

"I think we're going to we're going to sell out this weekend," she said.

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.
In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.