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Virtual tip jars, streaming DJ sets: How Maryland’s unemployed dining workers are surviving coronavirus crisis

Gov. Larry Hogan orders all restaurants and bars to be closed to dine-in customers in effort to fight COVID-19 pandemic.

Nicodemus Bustos and Chris Amendola each have on their hands matching “F” tattoos, a tribute to the restaurant they opened two years ago. To them — the restaurant’s general manager and its chef/owner, respectively — it’s more than a job, it’s an identity and way of life. "We don’t know what to do with ourselves when we’re not at work,” Bustos said.

So, not long after they were forced to close, along with every other bar and restaurant in the state, they went back into the kitchen. They decided to use the remaining perishable food in their walk-in to prepare free meals for fellow restaurant workers who, like them, found themselves suddenly with a whole lot of time on their hands. They spread the word using social media.

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“I think right now, it’s more than trying to succeed as a business. It’s trying to succeed as a community,” said sous chef Taylor Clerkin, standing outside the restaurant, Foraged, on Hampden’s Chestnut Street on Friday evening. The streets were uncharacteristically sparse, with walkers straining to keep a 6-foot buffer from one another.

Just over a week since Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan ordered all restaurants and bars to close to dine-in customers, industry workers and those whose livelihoods depend on the industry are experiencing financial insecurity, and fear for the future of a business that’s precarious on the best of days. At the same time, they’re using social media and digital payment services to support themselves and one another until more official forms of assistance like unemployment kick in.

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Adding stress to the overall situation is the uncertainty. Lack of appropriate testing means that governments aren’t fully sure how big the pandemic is, said Andy Bauer, vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Baltimore Branch. But he’s hopeful that the social distancing measures will mean “short-term pain for long-term gain.”

Some restaurants have created funds to help their staff. At a few places like those owned by Foreman Wolf and Atlas Restaurant Group, owners are requesting that guests buy gift certificates, with the proceeds going to a fund for laid-off workers.

Elsewhere, owners are creating GoFundMe accounts. Rosemary Liss, co-owner of Station North hotspot Le Comptoir du Vin, created an online fundraiser to raise money for staff, including the restaurant’s dishwasher, whose family in Laos depends on her remittances. As of Monday, the fund had raised more than $11,000 of its $25,000 goal.

“We are hoping to raise enough money for two months’ worth of salary for them as it looks like we could be closed for at least that long,” Liss wrote in an email.

But while workers wait for payouts from such funds, a few are taking matters into their own hands. On the Baltimore Area Restaurant Industry Relief Group on Facebook, members share tips on how to make the most of carryout and ask for help with filing unemployment. Some offer donations of food and money.

Publicist David Seel, whose Blue Fork Marketing group works primarily with restaurants, started the group to connect laid-off workers with resources. He’s also hoping to raise money for laid-off workers. “This is not about food,” Seel said. "It’s about cultural community, and these are our community gathering places.”

Seel also started an online petition — now with more than 12,000 signatures — addressed to Hogan and requesting things like a rent freeze and emergency SNAP benefits for workers. Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Last week, former bartender Abby Hopper created a “virtual tip jar,” for servers and bartenders to share their Venmo and PayPal accounts with restaurant goers who want to make donations. Modeled after a similar initiative in Washington, the Google spreadsheet list now contains around 1,800 names. More than a third of respondents said they lacked health insurance.

After the shutdown, said Hopper, a Highlandtown resident who works for a wine distributor, said “I just was immediately struck by how many people are going to be in trouble.” While she expects more help to arrive from government assistance and private funds, “We can’t wait three or four weeks for a fund to spread out among Baltimore industry.”

Bartender Kate Ewald said she’s received donations from regulars of up to $50 as well as a few dollars from total strangers. "It really does add up,” said Ewald, who until last week worked at Dutch Courage, a gin bar in Old Goucher. “I’m incredibly grateful for that.”

Along with the rest of the staff, she was laid off following the restaurant shutdown. While Ewald has applied for unemployment and other financial assistance, she knows it will likely be awhile until that comes through, particularly with the influx of applications. The support from such donations makes a big difference while she’s waiting.

“When you’re worried about paying rent or paying your bills, every drop in the bucket counts," Ewald said.

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Other servers and bartenders have begun doing online courses, or even livestreaming DJ sets to help pay the bills. The pandemic closed the bar where Dagm Endalkachew worked and cancelled all his upcoming gigs as a DJ through May. So last Tuesday, the 25-year-old bartender, DJ and EDM producer set up a camera and began livestreaming himself performing a set.

Headphones on, he bobbed his head to the beat of the music, adjusting knobs with the focus of an air traffic controller. Hundreds of people tuned in, leaving comments of support. “This is what I needed," wrote one.

Some posted song requests. One suggested he post his Venmo handle, to allow viewers to leave a tip. After a few hours, he signed off on the idea.

Before heading to sleep that night, Endalkachew checked his phone. He expected maybe to see a $20 donation from a friend. The total was nearly $100.

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