Interview: Food on the Front Line of COVID-19

The devastating impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis have revealed the incapacity of capitalist governments around the world to protect the health and safety of working class and oppressed people. This is seen most clearly in the US which continues to record the highest deaths and infections from this pandemic. As we have noted in previous articles and statements, poor and working class people have been hit the hardest, especially black and brown communities which have been disproportionately impacted by the virus. Here in New Orleans, African Americans have died at a rate of 70% even though they represent only 32% of the population. In order to learn more about how this pandemic has impacted working people, Workers’ Voice interviewed Dylan Lopez, a New Orleans restaurant worker, in December 2020.
WV: Could you introduce yourself?  Where are you from, and how did you get into the restaurant industry?
DL: My name is Dylan Lopez.  I’m a 27 year old chef in New Orleans.  I’m from LaPlace originally – it’s a little town in the New Orleans metro area about 20 minutes away.  I got into cooking through my first job in New Orleans which was at this dine-in movie theater that’s no longer there.  I just worked my way up, became a chef over there, ran the kitchen, moved on, and ran a few more kitchens in New Orleans like Zócalo and Otra Vez.  I’m currently working at a popular restaurant uptown on Freret Street.
WV: Can you talk about how the COVID crisis has impacted you as a restaurant worker here in New Orleans?
DL: Yeah, it’s a direct impact.  It was like a meteor struck the industry.  The hospitality industry has been on the frontlines of the pandemic faced with touch decisions to make, like whether to stay open and risk the health of your staff, or to close and then risk shutting down.  We’ve seen co-workers getting sick, not having sick pay available to them, or having to take time off.  We’ve seen people in this industry die of COVID-19 and we’ve seen historic restaurants and bars shut forever – not coming back.  So we are in the frontlines every day.

We are providing a life-giving service – feeding people and keeping society going.

With no relief from the government a lot of restaurants are kind of stuck out.  We are providing a life-giving service – feeding people and keeping society going.  We’re serving people and helping them feel “normal again” and creating this experience and in return our waitresses and waiters are getting less tips, less hours, and there is no type of relief from the government to help alleviate the stress.
WV: Can you talk about what has been done locally by the city government to address COVID-19 especially as it relates to hospitality workers?
DL: So that’s a tricky one, because on one hand, early on when the pandemic first started Mayor LaToya Cantrell shut the city down, as she should have, and gave restaurants the option whether to stay open – you could, but it had to be to-go only.  But with no real financial relief.  So it’s kind of like an empty policy.  Where it’s like, ok, you can close down but also, do so at your own risk because I’m not bailing you out.  And that’s particularly interesting when you consider the hospitality and restaurant workers of this city brought in a revenue of $9 billion in 2019 alone and we didn’t see any of that money returned to us.  Nothing was provided in relief.  Now, the State did offer extra unemployment for a short amount of time, but again, we had issues with infrastructure and the lack thereof where websites were failing, people couldn’t get their unemployment checks, or their stimulus checks.  I know people who still haven’t gotten their stimulus check.
I’ve been working for the latter half of the pandemic this year and it has gotten increasingly worse in the city.  It’s because we were going through these phases that didn’t really mean anything and that were very vague and there were no real guidelines or rules to follow.  So we’ve seen things like gigantic outdoor gatherings in courtyards of certain restaurants in the [French] Quarter where you’d have a live band playing and you’d have masses of people gathering around the band.  We had bars that were not supposed to be open but were secretly opening letting people in and keeping the door shut, but you could hear music coming from the inside.

We’re seeing crowds of tourists already in town – people who you know aren’t locals and they’re not wearing masks and they are coming here continuing the spread.

And then we had this massive gathering at the peak of one of the worst spikes in COVID where we had close to 300 people gather in Jackson Square for a Christian concert and that got real murky because apparently they had permits to perform from the city of New Orleans and then Mayor Cantrell has been denying that.  What ended up happening from that was we had a gigantic spike in cases in New Orleans. And that’s interesting to think about because even though we had that event happen and we’ve seen cases skyrocket in the city to the point where we are at 0.3% away from a 5% positivity rate after Thanksgiving, the city is still going on with Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Years’ Eve event and they’re setting  up big stages to accommodate this that is going to 100% guarantee to draw in a crowd.
As we’re sitting in this alleyway behind the French Market, we’re seeing crowds of tourists already in town – people who you know aren’t locals and they’re not wearing masks and they are coming here continuing the spread.  And I think that’s just a blatant indifference to public safety and disregard for the people in this city in favor of the dollar that the tourists are going to bring in and the amount of money that you’re raking in throwing this event.  So it definitely shows you that this was all about money.  Business as usual.
WV: Can you talk now about the federal response to the COVID-19 crisis and the most recent Coronavirus bill and stimulus?
DL:  So first off, that stimulus bill is not a stimulus bill.  That’s a big budget spending bill and they decided to throw us a little $600 from whatever change was left over.  Our tax money is being used to fund war and to fund big budget Pentagon and military projects.  There’s no relief for the working class. $600 pays nobody’s rent in this nation at all.  $600 barely covers some people’s bills.
There’s a big issue with how this pandemic was handled by the federal government and the fact that we didn’t make a federal mandate where all states had to adhere to one central guideline, subjecting all of the ‘progressive states’ to the chaos when other states that weren’t enforcing any COVID restrictions were bringing the virus to other states.  It’s like we need one rule across the nation during the pandemic.  You don’t leave it up to the states during a global pandemic.  You don’t leave it up to bipartisan bullshit.  You come together as one and you say we’re going to lock this down, we’re going to make sure everyone’s got their money, we’re going to make sure that people can stay indoors and stay safe and then we’ll get through this.  We only needed one year of this shit, but look now, we did all this bipartisan nonsense that didn’t really benefit anyone.
Throughout this entire pandemic, this bipartisan effort ultimately left working-class people to die.  The ignorance and incompetence from the oligarchy should show the American people that this two-party system does not work.  It’s two wings of the same bird.  We’ve had over 300,000 people dead, most of whom are working class people.  The disinformation that was spread rampantly from the White House throughout the crisis made it even worse.  And the response from the government echoes that of Marie Antoinette when the French Revolution was just starting to happen.  And I’m honestly surprised that this country isn’t on fire right now because the federal government left us to die.  They only bailed out the economy which benefits them which is Wall Street.  The rich got incredibly wealthy over this pandemic and the poor were pushed into poverty even further.  And I think as the working class we need to separate from this two-party system and stop participating in it completely and we just function among ourselves.  Because all we really have, and all we’ve seen in this pandemic was that we had each other.
My neighborhood was able to build a really good community amongst the neighbors – we came together and took care of each other through this pandemic.  We fed each other, we drank with each other, we did more for each other than the federal government did and I’m sure that was the case for others as well.
WV: Could you talk about how the federal bill played out locally, especially regarding the PPP (paycheck protection program1)?
DL:  So I want to ask the question does anyone know what that is?  Even business owners still don’t know how to navigate the PPP loan.  From my understanding, small and local businesses, depending on need, were awarded a given sum that was already calculated and predetermined based on your needs in order to  provide relief for workers of these businesses without having to lay them off.  What ended up happening was that you had people like Morris Bart, who is a multi-millionaire and a very famous lawyer in this city, get $4 million in PPP loans for his law firm, but the restaurant that I work at that has a staff of 20 people only got $300,000.  So as you can see, it wasn’t really based on need, but on wealth and notoriety in the city.  Why was Morris Bart, a wealthy lawyer, able to secure $4 million?  Whereas the guy who owns my restaurant only secured this much, given the fact that he had a larger staff, and he probably has more bills to pay.  So, ultimately, the response again was just pure ignorance and incompetence and a complete disregard for the workers.  And we also have businesses who are holding out on their PPP – they haven’t even used it yet.  So in turn, you have staff who are suffering.

I’m honestly surprised that this country isn’t on fire right now because the federal government left us to die.

Some restaurants are getting on board and are being really progressive and using that PPP to level everybody out with chefs and general managers taking pay cuts so that everybody makes a living wage at the end of the week.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case for every restaurant in this city.  We have a lot that just chose to stay closed and displaced a lot of workers.  We have a lot of restaurants that are gaining new staff because they have nowhere else to go.  I really think that this PPP lesson and the pandemic should have taught the restaurant industry as a whole that we need to change the way we do everything.  If we’re all working towards one common goal there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to make a decent living wage.  If we’re building wealth for these owners and we’re making sure that their businesses stay afloat, we should be able to make a living wage.
WV: What are hospitality workers facing right now in New Orleans and what support do they need?
DL:  We have to have more equity among hospitality workers – meaning owners, chefs, and general managers need to step up.  There’s no reason why a chef should make $83,000 a year and his line cook that does the majority of the work makes ten bucks an hour.  We need to revolutionize the way that we work.  And part of that is, we need to charge people more money to want to eat.  Because at this point we are providing people a life-giving service.  We learned in this pandemic that a lot of people don’t know how to cook and there’s a  demand for restaurants to stay open.  This was a source of food for so many people.
Working in a restaurant is a blue collar job and is a respectable trade.  We have people working sixty hours a week sometimes.  This crisis shined a light on how much more we need PTO2, a living wage, vacation time, and all the benefits.  We need a union which can guarantee that the workers get paid a living wage.  And we need to force these bosses and these owners to up the money.  Because there’s no reason why a restaurant owner, who is living in a really nice house, while the workers, the ones who build all the wealth for him, can’t even pay their rent.  It comes from the top down.  Everybody who’s making more money need to wise up because we could really just strike one day and we could cripple every restaurant in this industry if we all got together and decided we’re not showing up to work today, we’re standing in solidarity until we all get a living wage.  And it’s going to force them to open up their pockets.  There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be making more money.  Every line cook in this city should be paid at least $15 an hour minimum starting wage.
WV: What do you think we can expect from the Biden administration relating to the coronavirus?
DL:  The only thing we’re going to see from the Biden administration these four years is just a bunch of virtue signaling.  We’re going to see a bunch of empty policies.  We’ve already seen the Democratic Party get embarrassed completely during this second round of stimulus relief conversations where McConnel played Pelosi into a corner.  And then McConnell turned his back on Trump by refusing to go along with the $2,000 stimulus.  It’s a mess.  I don’t want people to have selective amnesia though and remember that Trump denied the money to us in the first place back in May.  I think credit should go to Rashida Talib who was the first to propose this $2,000 a month stimulus.  This wasn’t just some arbitrary number they pulled out of nowhere.  This was already a policy that was shot down.  I think Pelosi’s getting what she deserves because she ignored the progressive caucus within her party.  And you reap what you sow.  Because you played both sides of the fence and she and Biden both swore to not embarrass their Republican counterparts and not fight for the working class.  And I don’t think anybody in owes their loyalty to either party at this point because both of them left us to die.  The Republicans were just more overt about it.
WV: Could you explain how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color in the hospitality industry?
DL: When you look at the statistics of COVID-19, you’ll see how black and brown folks are disproportionately affected and that’s because they are still working.  In a lot of these kitchen jobs and restaurants, the black and brown workers are the backbone of those restaurants and they carry the brunt of weight that makes the restaurant run.  The way that COVID-19 is affecting these communities and the obvious indifference from not only local governments, but patrons themselves, shows you that they don’t really value the worth of black and brown people and don’t see them as human beings but rather as sentient servants and I think that’s wrong.  If anyone deserves a paid vacation to really enjoy themselves and relax, it’s the black and brown workers who continue to carry this industry.  And to see the COVID-19 numbers affect these communities also reflects the lack of access in healthcare and resources that these communities don’t have that privileged white communities do have.  And the for-profit healthcare industry has ultimately failed the working class people of this country and I think that’s why we’re seeing these numbers.
WV: What can we learn from the George Floyd uprisings that took place over the summer and what is needed now?
DL: What we can learn from the uprisings in the summer is that power is definitely in numbers and the more that we organize and stand in solidarity in every industry, continue to carry out this work off of the internet and into the streets and workplaces, I think the more we’ll see get done.  We had more change this summer because of direct action than we ever saw with voting.  If the truckers strike, then that means shit’s not getting delivered, if the farmers strike, that means no produce is coming, and if the restaurants strike, we can guarantee that the elites aren’t eating, if the cashiers strike, nobody’s buying.  If we all come together, industry to industry and stand together, we can really make a big change in this nation.  We can put the power back to the people.  And I try to always have good faith in any type of revolutionary thought and process and I think any revolution needs hope more than anything.  Yet we need the power and the will to keep going no matter how hard it is.  I think this uprising taught us that the people on the ground level deserve better, and it begins with the main focus of the summer uprisings: justice and reparations for Black people.  We must continue to fight.


  1.  “The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is a $669-billion business loan program established by the 2020 US Federal government Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) to help certain businesses, self-employed workers, sole proprietors, certain nonprofit organizations, and tribal businesses continue paying their workers.”
  2. Paid time off

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