April unemployment numbers in the US came out today and they are grim across the board, especially for those in the restaurant and bar industry. Perhaps the most alarming statistic here in Washington: 14,827 bartenders filed initial claims for unemployment from March 8 through April 25, according to a recent analysis by the Seattle Times, using data from the state’s Employment Security Department. That number almost exactly matched the estimated amount of people employed in the bartending profession in the second quarter of 2020, although it doesn’t seem to take into account those who may have been furloughed, rather than laid off completely. Bartenders were the hardest hit occupation overall, with waiters and waitresses not far behind — about 51 percent of wait staff filed for unemployment over the same time period.
The data may not be completely surprising, but highlights just how devastating the COVID-19 pandemic has been. Since Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order was instituted in mid-March to help mitigate spread of the disease, all restaurants and bars have been closed for dine-in services (although some remain open for takeout and delivery).
Even though booze laws were relaxed a little to allow wine, beer, and sealed bottles of liquor, up until this week, to-go cocktails were still not allowed, so mixologists have been out of luck, with many needing to navigate an oveloaded unemployment system. Tyler Moore, head bartender of Capitol Hill restaurant Meet Korean BBQ, says though he has been able to get some unemployment checks, he knows many coworkers who haven’t. “There are tons of people who have had massive issues,” he says. “Waiting five-to-six weeks to get paid. Some not at all.”
It’s also difficult to know how the newly relaxed rules for takeout mixed drinks will help get some out-of-work bartenders employed, if they feel comfortable coming back to work at all, given public health concerns. Bars would still need to serve “full meals” (as defined here) to sell cocktails for takeout or delivery, and there are strict rules on containers, which may be costly and difficult to source.
Jamie Boudreau, who runs cocktail destination Canon, says that the lack of notice for the new to-go cocktail rules put him in a bind. The special containers needed will take 10 days to arrive, and he’ll have to implement a computerized point of sale [POS] system to take orders. “POS is my greatest hurdle right now, as we can’t afford to sign up with any of the delivery systems out there — the fees will bankrupt us,” he says.
Still, Canon and other bars feel like the effort may be worth it to generate at least some revenue and bring some employees back on. Capitol Hill’s new spirits-focused spot The Doctor’s Office recently indicated it would reopen next Friday with a takeout menu. Chris Elford, co-owner of acclaimed Belltown bars No Anchor, Rob Roy, Vinnie’s Raw Bar, and Navy Strength, says that No Anchor may sell some individual cocktails, but the others would still probably still do larger cocktail kits with food orders, as other bars and restaurants have done.
There is still much uncertainty ahead, though. Inslee recently announced a phased plan to reopen the economy, but the state is still only in phase one of that plan. Bars (without food offerings) aren’t allowed to open until phase 3, and only at 25 percent capacity. With each phase lasting at least three weeks, it will likely be several months before many shuttered Seattle bars reopen their doors, and unemployed bartenders can find steady work.
Says Moore, “A bigger worry is, what are we coming back to?”
UPDATED, May 8, 2020, 4:02 p.m.: A previous version of this article mistakenly said that Chris Elford’s bars were closed temporarily, but they are still open for takeout orders.
- Coronavirus Unemployment: Bartenders, Dental Assistants Top List of Washington’s Hardest-Hit Jobs [Seattle Times]
- The Restaurant Industry Lost 5.5 Million Jobs In April [Eater]
- Washington Rules: Restaurants Can Now Sell To-Go Cocktails [ESEA]
- Gov. Jay Inslee Will Extend Stay-at-Home Order Through May 31 [ESEA]