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In pandemic, a doctor and restaurant owner 'figure out what we can do for each other’ | COMMENTARY

Members of a COVID-19 unit at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center accept Sunday meals donated by The Black Olive restaurant in Fells Point.
Members of a COVID-19 unit at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center accept Sunday meals donated by The Black Olive restaurant in Fells Point.(Panagis Galiatsatos)

It’s hard to fully appreciate the scope of misery and potential misery caused by the coronavirus. Early Thursday morning, keepers of the numbers for the United States put infections confirmed by tests at 829,168. In the next column they listed deaths: 42,217. That means more Americans have died from the virus in 55 days than were killed in action in 10 years of the Vietnam War.

I went to the National Archives for the war numbers, though not convinced of their relevance. Most of us understand that, around the globe, disease and respiratory infections end far more lives than do bullets and bombs. Still, relative to the duration of U.S. involvement in Vietnam (1965 to 1975) and the American death toll — 40,934 killed in action, another 17,286 in other casualty categories — the loss of life from COVID-19 since Feb. 28 represents a shocking tsunami of misery.

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And the medical scientists say there are more waves to come.

For those of us sheltering at home, it is still hard to grasp. We are Americans. We are in charge of our destinies (or at least believe that we are). We are free to work hard to get what we want. None of us is a prisoner of fate.

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And yet, here we are — life as we knew it folded up and put away. Millions unemployed. Institutions, governments, small businesses and restaurants facing massive financial losses or ruin.

Unless you’re willfully ignorant or take your cues from fools who want to “reopen the economy” against medical advice, you’re learning to live wisely, trying to be patient, steeling yourself to a daily regimen that acknowledges grim reality but still looks to the future.

I know: That’s easier to say if you’re still employed, or if your business is still open, or if you’re in line to get help from the government.

But, hard as this is — and it might be the hardest thing we will ever face — we can’t just give up. We have to look for a way through — for ourselves and for each other.

I believe this is what I heard expressed in a phone conversation the other day with Dimitris Spiliadis, Baltimore restaurateur, co-owner with his parents of The Black Olive in Fells Point and sympathetic employer of 21 people who have been idled by the emergency shutdown of public establishments.

Spiliadis is looking for a way to gradually, carefully and sustainably put some, if not all, of his employees back to work. That desire has its roots in gratitude. He managed to get a government-backed loan through the new Payroll Protection Program established by Congress last month. It will enable Spiliadis to keep paying his staff during the shutdown.

“I applied right away for the PPP,” he says. “When our bank ignored us, BayVanguard Bank and the Small Business Administration stepped up to help. We would be wiped out without that loan. … It made the difference between making a plan and giving up.”

BayVanguard goes back to 19th Century Baltimore and the era of building associations and neighborhood savings and loans. Its arrangement with The Black Olive provides more than twice the restaurant’s monthly payroll through the end of the year, and that’s why Spiliadis is thinking about reopening for pickup and delivery of the Olive’s acclaimed Greek fare.

“But we want to do it responsibly,” he says. “We want to be extra cautious. Not all our employees will be able to do this. I’m not going to challenge any of them on when they feel they are ready to return to work, but some will. I’m thinking it might be possible to start doing this in May. We could have our servers make deliveries from The Black Olive, or we could open the front window and hand the orders to our customers.”

The restaurant made its first delivery on Sunday, Greek Orthodox Easter. It was a donation of meals to medical teams working on COVID-19 units at Johns Hopkins Hospital and its Bayview Medical Center. Spiliadis would have made more than he did, he says, but he could only find enough lamb for a traditional Easter dinner for 40 people.

Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a Hopkins physician, picked up the meals. He has agreed to provide medical advice and virus screening for The Black Olive’s employees. It’s an arrangement he’s made to help one of his favorite restaurants start producing food again.

Because of COVID-19, Spiliadis thinks the restaurant’s health and safety standards need to be raised above what’s currently required. “There’s probably a new protocol for restaurants that the whole industry needs,” he says.

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So he’s asked Galiatsatos to help him with that. And Galiatsatos seems perfect for the part. He is a founder and leader of Medicine for the Greater Good, a Hopkins initiative to connect doctors with underserved and vulnerable communities.

So these sons of Greek immigrants have struck up a partnership: The restaurateur, grateful for a loan to cover his payroll, makes a plan to bring his staff back to work, with the help of the consulting physician from Hopkins.

The staff at The Black Olive gets a test for coronavirus and a doctor’s cellphone number; the doctor and colleagues at Hopkins — and the restaurant’s fans — get the good food they’ve been missing since the shutdown.

“These are extreme times,” Dimitris Spiliadis says. “We have to figure out what we can do for each other.”

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