Kate Fleming’s phone bill was the first to go.
Fleming, formerly a server at George’s Lowcountry Table, spent one week at the restaurant before the owners closed the dining room due to fears over the spread of COVID-19. Though the restaurant shifted to takeout and delivery orders, there wasn’t a burning need for waitstaff — only one rotating server and one or two back-of-house people, Fleming said.
“It’s hard not knowing when you’re going to get money again to put gas in your car or buy the extra thing that your child wants,” Fleming said. “It’s just really hard.”
On March 16, the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission unanimously approved a local state of emergency order to restrict public gatherings of 10 or more people until April 7, effectively limiting the amount of patrons businesses could serve.
The county issued a second state of emergency on March 19, instructing all "non-essential" businesses to cease all activities other than basic operations. A major flow of income for most service industry workers in Athens was then interrupted.
In compliance with the ordinance, bars, restaurants and coffee shops in Athens shut their dining rooms and switched to a curbside pickup, to-go or delivery model. Smaller businesses falling under the ACC government’s “non-essential service” category — from retail clothing stores and flower shops to bars, gyms and hair salons — also closed their doors.
Food preparation and serving-related occupations are the second-highest category of employment in ACC behind office and administrative support occupations, according to 2018 occupational employment statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This category encompasses bartenders, cooks, servers, dishwashers and baristas.
The primary caregiver of her elderly, immunocompromised mother, Fleming said her only sources of income are now the monthly Social Security checks her mother receives. To cut as many expenses as possible, Fleming justified canceling her phone plan. The next financial sacrifice will likely be her car payment, Fleming said.
Fleming knows there are other employment opportunities in the workforce that she can apply for — like grocery stores or delivery services such as Instacart, the latter of which NPR reported is doubling its workforce of independent contractors — but fears of exposing her mother to the virus outweigh the benefit of additional income, she said.
“I would rather know I’m doing everything I can to not be exposed and bring it home to my mother than to have money to pay my bills,” Fleming said.
Fleming took a leave of absence from her previous job to take care of her mother. Though she has been working in the service industry for around two years, she hasn’t had a chance to rebuild her savings. Servers are used to having quick access to cash because they’re paid with tips, Fleming said.
Before the pandemic, she said she wasn’t living paycheck-to-paycheck but living month-to-month. Now, she said she’s living day-to-day.
“I can pay a bill, and I can say that I’m working tomorrow, and I’ll have tip money tomorrow, which is how I’ve been living,” Fleming said. “That’s not the deal anymore — if I have 100 bucks, it’s the 100 bucks I’m going to have until the foreseeable future.”
Everything in flux
As COVID-19 nationally spread during the University of Georgia’s weeklong spring break, the coronavirus pandemic hit at a time when Athens businesses were already vulnerable to low sales. UGA’s two-week class suspension and shift to online instruction exacerbated the problem.
Alyssa Zanone Kreutz, a hairdresser at Pageboy Salon, fears the lessened activity in the local economy will have a “devastating impact” on businesses in town, a financial lull that will likely extend into the summer.
“It’s like a six-month-long summer,” Kreutz said, whose primary form of income is receiving commission off of services at the salon. “As a business that really works with students at UGA, we are already impacted in the summer by students not being at the salon. This is just like an extra-long summer.”
Though Kreutz said the salon tried to stay in operation for as long as possible, Pageboy closed temporarily on March 19. Kreutz is not heavily impacted by the virus putting her out of work — she has savings and owns her own home, she said — but her husband also works in the service industry, so there is no active flow of money coming into the household.
“The unknown is really frightening to everyone who makes a living off of working for the public when people are afraid to go outside,” Kreutz said.
Jarrod Miller, the co-owner of 1785 Bar and Grill, Moonshine Bar and On the Rocks, closed his establishments on March 17. Employing mostly college students, Miller said around 100 of his 120 employees did not return to Athens after spring break and will not move back until the fall.
A slim fraction of local workers and wayward students remain, and Miller said he is trying to employ them to complete renovations and deep clean the bars.
Miller also said he is trying to connect his employees with service industry resources such as the Giving Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that provides both financial and emergency assistance to service industry workers, and the Bartender Emergency Assistance Program, created by the United States Bartenders’ Guild, to help ease the burden of the closures.
Lauren Owens, a bartender at Hi-Lo Bar and Lounge and Little Kings Shuffle Club, applied for BEAP within the first few days of closings. Owens, along with some of her coworkers at Hi-Lo, also filed for unemployment benefits, and she is considering applying for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
Little Kings will remain closed for the foreseeable future, but Hi-Lo is working out the kinks in its to-go order menu. Both bars have established donation pools for their employees, and Owens said she and other co-workers have received donations from customers and regulars through the crowdsourced Athens Virtual Tip Jar spreadsheet.
“I know personally it’s nice to feel really supported and know that I have people that I can rely on and that care about me, and that makes me feel really safe,” Owens said.
Owens said she has yet to reach a place where she is worried about her finances, though she expressed concern over the business landscape in Athens after the pandemic. She’s worried about the places that make Athens, Athens not being able to ride out the pandemic.
The uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic and the looming return to normalcy is anxiety-inducing, Owens said, but she finds solace in the support she’s receiving from her management and the community at large.
“The people you work with are like family and you get to know them over the time you’re working there,” Kate Fleming said of the service industry. “Everyone’s usually willing to help everybody else when they need it.”