Workers and Owners Fearful, Uncertain as State Reopens


Luke Mabie faces 16th street from inside his restaurant, Culprit Cafe and Bakery on April 29, 2020. Mabie, like many others across the city have decided not to reopen citing lack of confidence in new directed health measures as well as customers desire to return. Photo by Chris Bowling.

 

When it comes to measuring success and failure, Luke Mabie doesn’t look at reviews. Instead, the owner of Culprit Cafe and Bakery watches which plates get picked at and which ones get wiped clean. He listens to regulars chatting over cups of coffee.

Even now, as he prepares pastries in a restaurant that hasn’t seen a dine-in customer in more than a month, he’s taking cues from the community.

“We’re not going to open up because a government official is trying to push for this,” Mabie said. “Our community is telling us. If I’m standing there trying to figure out whether to open, all I have to do is open up my door and start listening.”

As Douglas County enters new directed health measures in effect from May 4 to May 31 that allow some businesses to reopen with restrictions, some workers and owners say the decision is premature, posing serious risks to public health before the state’s even reached its peak caseload, according to a University of Nebraska Medical Center model.

Ricketts cited low Covid-19-related hospitalizations as a main driver for the decision.

Many businesses like Culprit have announced they will not reopen. For Mabie, it’s implicit in the lengths customers go to limit interaction when he makes no-contact deliveries. For many, it’s also about growing case numbers, lack of testing and general uncertainty of the pandemic’s trajectory.

“That’s the reason why people aren’t opening up,” Mabie said. “If they’re not it’s because they don’t feel comfortable with the education level on this [new directed health measure].”

Others, including salons, barbershops, tattoo parlors, childcare facilities, massage therapy services allowed to reopen in Douglas County as well as regions across the state, are having to make hard choices between fear of spreading the virus and fear of not having enough money to survive.

“People are being forced back to work because we’re not getting help from the entitlements that we’ve paid into for however many years,” said Jordan Palmer, an Omaha hair stylist who’s helped organize thousands of concerned workers in recent weeks. “So we don’t have an option.”

A few weeks ago, Palmer started a Facebook group to connect hairdressers and similar workers with information about Covid-19. That group has swelled to more than 1,800 people, many of whom are frustrated about not receiving unemployment benefits or other financial salves, Palmer said.

Many of these professionals saw a lag in payments because independent contractors and self-employed people needed to be paid through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program set up through the CARES Act. Nebraska had to wait for federal guidance on how to update its system to distribute those funds, said Grace Johnson, public information officer with the Nebraska Department of Labor. They started sending those checks Monday, she said.

Since March 8, the department has received nearly 130,000 applications for unemployment, roughly equal to all the claims they received in 2017, 2018 and 2019 combined. So far it’s processed more than 81,000 of those claims. Johnson said their goal is to process 75% of claims within three to four weeks of receiving them.

Unemployment benefits will continue as long as the worker’s business stays closed due to Covid-19 even under the new directed health measure, Johnson said. However, if employees decline to return to work, refuse new work or quit “without good cause,” their benefits will end unless they provide a doctor’s testimony that existing health conditions put them at risk.

Palmer, who has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and who’s doctors have advised she not return to work, helped start an online petition asking Ricketts to reconsider his new measures. In one day, it gained nearly 3,600 signatures. Among its listed grievances is that people in these industries don’t know best practices to keep themselves and their clients safe.

They want more information on where to find the right kind of personal protective equipment, how to sanitize their stations properly and how to mitigate risks. Palmer said other states have provided that information, but so far she hasn’t seen anything beyond the need to wear masks and wash their hands.

“It’s actually asinine,” she said. “It’s offensive that they will not take the time to create a comprehensive sanitation guideline for us to return to work safely.”

Mabie said he felt a similar disconnect. He’s in a Facebook group in which restaurant owners share articles and public health postings to understand the situation. Part of the reason he and others aren’t opening is a lack of certainty, including a solid, detailed plan.

But Zoe Olson, Executive Director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association, said she’s constantly disseminating information.

Olson, whose organization represents 600 member restaurants and 120 ally members, said she’s regularly emailing her member network and updating information on the organization’s website based on daily conversations with a national network of restaurant associations. In addition, she noted resources for best sanitizing practices are available on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.

“It’s a matter of people who are trying to keep themselves informed and are doing great business practices and those who are saying, ‘I’m going on my own’ and then complaining saying nobody told me,” Olson said.

Servers will be required to wear personal protective equipment. Dining rooms will have to operate at 50% capacity and practice social distancing guidelines. There’s no mention of whether customers will be required to wear masks.

Olson did not know how many businesses are choosing not to reopen. And while she acknowledges it’s a case-by-case decision, Olson said people should feel confident going out to dine by May 4.

“I know the lengths that Nebraska restaurants go to to keep everything safe and sanitary. And we’ve only ramped that up,” she said. “So Nebraska restaurants are safe. As safe as any place you’re going to go.”

But that does little to assuage workers like Cameron Lee, the pastaiolo at Via Farina. Lee can give an explanation of different mask filtering materials that would impress any epidemiologist and doesn’t doubt his workplace’s ability to sanitize and restructure to accommodate social distancing standards.

But none of that matters among so much uncertainty. How many people have the virus? When will the state reach recommended testing capacities? And, above all, how much risk will he and his coworkers be assuming if they start serving guests?

“It’s not really fear,” Lee said. “It’s just uncertainty. And the uncertainty of uncertainty.”

 


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