Guest Perspective by Justine Nevarez

I was laid off because of the coronavirus pandemic, but I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m not saying navigating through the pandemic was easy, but I certainly recognize that I didn’t have it nearly as bad as most of my restaurant family.

I was one of the “newbies” at a long-established Downtown restaurant, having only worked there for nine years. In that time, I hosted, served, worked banquets, managed, and coordinated events. By the time we were shut down due to the COVID-19 virus in March, I felt like an integral part of the inner workings of the business. As I closed the restaurant on March 16, 2020, I confidently told my staff that I’d see them in two weeks, “once this whole coronavirus thing is over.” That was not the case. The longer we were shut down, the more I started to panic, for myself, my staff, “my” business, and my community.

I spent the next three months in a constant state of fear, anxiety, depression, and anger. These feelings were surrounding the virus itself, our federal government, community members who didn’t take it seriously, and most importantly, the pain and suffering of my fellow staff members. My entire work family lost their jobs, as did most of their partners. Many were ineligible for unemployment benefits, and their lives were turned upside down in every way imaginable. I wanted to help my restaurant family in any way I could: by constantly coming up with new ways for the restaurant to stay open and relevant, finding gigs for them to make a little money here or there, trying to help rebuild after the damage caused by unrest on May 31, just to name a few.

I say I’m one of the lucky ones because it only took me two and a half months for my unemployment checks to arrive (as a result of already filing our taxes), so we were already “in the system.” I’m lucky because I have friends that have had to collect unemployment before, so they could help me through the less than streamlined process. I’m lucky because my husband did not lose his job, so he and I were able to survive on his income and our savings. I’m lucky because our niece and nephew lived with us, so helping them navigate their “new normal” gave me some sense of purpose. I’m lucky because I didn’t get sick, and my loved ones that did, survived. I’m lucky because I have a network of friends, family, and colleagues that I was able to reach out to and beg for any work they could toss my way.

Little did I know that one of those texts would lead me to a new career path. My passion is events, and the new standard for events is virtual. I was able to transition into a temp job working around 10 hours per week coordinating the Virtual Taste of Downtown for the Downtown Long Beach Alliance (DLBA). After five months as the Virtual Events Coordinator, I was lucky enough to receive a full-time offer as the Special Projects Coordinator, which plays to my strengths as a “Jill-of-all-trades” from working in the restaurant industry most of my life.

It’s bittersweet because I loved my job and my coworkers and I really had no intention of leaving for as long as they’d have me, but I just couldn’t wait any longer for things to turn around. On the flip side, this opportunity has helped me grow, mentally and emotionally, with the new challenges I’m presented with daily. I’m learning a lot and really enjoy working with such bright, civic-minded, friendly teammates. I look forward to the day I can meet them in person and thrive on the vibes of working communally.

My hopes for restaurant industry workers are that you’ll still be there when we get “back to normal,” that you are treated with respect and kindness, and most importantly, that you get through this as unscathed as possible. We need you: servers, cooks, bartenders, dishwashers, hosts, bussers, expos, barbacks, and banquet staff. We can’t let your jobs go extinct. You are experts in multitasking and reading peoples’ wants and needs. You are the culinary experts that give us a reason to be there in the first place. You are therapists. You keep the experience flowing seamlessly behind the scenes. You are regular guests’ home-away-from-home. You are friendly, outgoing, and can put a smile on anyone’s face. You truly care about your craft. As you can probably tell, we’re all chomping at the bit to get out to our favorite restaurants and bars again. So, we desperately need you.

All in all, I will miss all the pranks and jokes among staff, the double shifts, the nights that turned into mornings, and the pure, organized chaos of working in a restaurant. I wish my restaurant family the absolute best, and I look forward to spending time with them on the other side of the bar once we can hang out in restaurants and bars again.