What's this meal really worth?

The people who serve you indoors in a pandemic

Welcome to At The End Of The Day. I’m Hannah Sung. I write this newsletter for some perspective in the firehose of daily news.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving.

If you’re enjoying low COVID-19 rates along with fresh air and falling leaves where you are, then I wish you all the turkeys.

In Toronto, a city I love so much, things are not going ok.

Twitter: Literally keeping me up at night

Ontario premier Doug Ford is continuing his exceptionally bad leadership by musing during a press conference that he might have guests in his home for Thanksgiving. (He later clarified on Twitter that he wouldn’t.)

Meanwhile, I recently had to call up my lovely Aunt Jenny to decline her invitation to an outdoor Thanksgiving (don’t worry, it’s since been 100% canceled for ages because she’s not Doug Ford) which is exactly what every discerning human in a COVID-19 hotspot is doing. We’re canceling plans or not making them in the first place, sacrificing a holiday meal with our most beloved people because it’s the right thing to do.

And while families are doing this, Ontario won’t close indoor dining for profit. Thanksgiving with Aunt Jenny? No! Random chicken strips and fries in a bar? Yes!

In Toronto, the positivity rate for COVID-19 tests is averaging 4% across the board (NYC has 3% as the cut-off to close non-essential businesses and schools), with some Toronto neighbourhoods as high as 11%. [1]

44% of recent COVID-19 outbreaks in Toronto are tied to bars and restaurants and entertainment venues. [2]

But the Premier isn’t closing indoor dining at restaurants and bars. Ford says he needs “evidence” before ruining people’s livelihoods.

It’s true that temporarily shutting down someone’s small business, or forcing it to pivot quickly, is crushing. [3]

But figuring out tough details is the purpose of elected leadership. And the level to which Ontario’s provincial government is abdicating themselves of the responsibility to protect citizens is just brutal.

So while they’re making decisions that are really, very, extremely questionable, right now I’m focusing a laser pointer on the issue of workers in restaurants.

This Tweet below was in response to a quote from Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams.

In this Toronto Star story, Dr. Williams is quoted as saying that outbreaks among restaurant staff don’t count as outbreaks in communities. Are…restaurant workers…not…people…in…communities?

After tweeting my questions, I heard from a lot of people in the hospitality industry.

One woman, a 30-year-old in management at a large food service establishment in downtown Toronto, told me that when local public health asked that we not see our extended families at Thanksgiving, it made her question whether indoor dining at all is a responsible thing to do. She’s close to her family but won’t see them while she works with so much public contact.

But it was something else she said, about the nature of her work throughout this pandemic, that really stuck with me.

If you consider what’s happening globally right now and community transmission and you think of the people who are coming in to dine indoors anyway, you have to think about the type of diner who’s doing that. I’ve been working in this industry for 15 years and I haven’t been told to fuck off more than I have this summer. It’s honestly shocking.

She isn’t the only one to mention this.

I spoke with a lifelong server in the restaurant and bar industry, Aja Sax, who is a friend of a friend. She recently took on different work because she doesn’t feel restaurants are a safe work environment at the moment.

Strangers aren’t very kind right now. They’re really rude and confrontational about wearing a mask to go to the washroom indoors. Having worked Saturday nights at some of the busiest clubs in the city, I’ve seen some terrible behaviour in my time but this is just, when you take everything into account, it’s shocking.

Several people mentioned servers having their masks ripped off their faces by patrons (why?!).

When government leadership keeps prioritizing money exchanging hands over all else, I dare say people will follow suit. This is how the 30-year-old food service manager described some patrons.

You have customers who do not respect you and really just see it as a transaction. They see themselves as saviours almost, people who are putting money into your pocket at a time of need, so they’re entitled to this behaviour.

Doug Ford wants to keep restaurant indoor dining (and bars and gyms) open so that he doesn’t have to disrupt the income of workers. But what would real protection for workers look like?

One bartender I spoke to said he wished his bar would close. I asked him how he’d survive, income-wise, and he said the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) has been a lifeline but he’s unsure what he would do moving forward.

The food service manager, above, said she was grateful for the federal move to provide paid sick leave. [4]

And Aja and I talked about universal basic income as she strongly feels it would protect her from working in unsafe environments, COVID-19 or not.

If I had a guaranteed monthly income, I could work at a restaurant that I felt safe at, that I wasn't being sexually harassed at, where I didn't have to be polite to really rude people in order to pay my bills. I think you end up creating a more productive society, when people can do things they actually want to do without the overwhelming pressure of working 60 hours a week at a retail store or a bar and still barely getting by.

I’ve mentioned universal basic income a few times in the ATEOD letter now and I don’t want you to think I have some sort of hidden agenda (that would take forethought and strategy and I am very much flying by the seat of my elasticized COVID pants).

I’m like you — previously, I didn’t think about a universal basic income as much more than a theory. And then COVID-19 hit with CERB and we were suddenly experiencing a kind of UBI.

It would be wonderful to know what the long-term effects could be but the UBI pilot program in Ontario had the plug pulled suddenly when Ford swept into government in 2018. Talk about ruining people’s livelihoods. Their lives were upended by a promise made by one government and broken by the next. [5]

So I’m still learning about UBI, wishing there were more data, knowing that there are great advocates out there pushing for it.

I’m going to keep reading up on UBI (I hope you’ll send me links).

And for now, I think it’s unconscionable that government leadership is using restaurant workers, or more specifically completely ignoring them, in order to justify their inaction. If you want to see systemic discrimination in action, the classism of Dr. David William’s disregard for restaurant staff is about as crystal clear as it gets.

If restaurant and bar workers (and yes, strip club dancers, too) would rather have paid sick days and a universal basic income, or any other financial supports, perhaps their knowledge of the industry and its pressures could inform policy on how to protect their personal health and livelihoods more than it does to simply keep bars open.

Thank you to the amazing people who wrote to me on Twitter, Instagram, chatted on the phone and Zoom to tell me about how difficult it is to work in hospitality right now. Real government leadership would be about providing supports so you didn’t have to choose between your health, your social supports (like seeing your family) and making a living wage in a pandemic.

I’m also thinking about the people who keep our spaces clean, like garbage collectors or janitors, whose roles are meant to be invisible so that we can enjoy the results of their labour without looking them in the eye and saying, “This is meaningful work, thank you.”

As for Thanksgiving, whatever shape it takes this year, I hope you have a moment of peace. I won’t be sitting down with my extended family but I am thinking about dropping off a drive-by chicken to my folks. My neighbour and I will be exchanging homemade desserts. They’re small things but I’m trying to mark the occasion.

If you enjoyed reading this, hit the heart below. Thank you so much for being on the other end of this letter!


Edited with precision, good humour and overall phone-a-friend lifeline vibes by Ishani Nath.



[1] More than 10 per cent of COVID-19 tests are coming back positive in some pockets of Toronto, The Toronto Star

[2] Premier Doug Ford won’t close bars and restaurants in Toronto without ‘more data,’ despite soaring case counts and plea from city’s top doctor, The Toronto Star

[3] Four ways Canadian governments can help small business survive COVID-19’s second wave, Save Small Business

[4] Senate passes latest COVID-19 aid bill after compromise on hybrid sittings, CTV

[5] Humans of Basic Income, Jessie Golem, ‘I’m hoarding’: Ontario’s basic income recipients prepare for program’s early end (2019), CBC

Crush it: Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem says a crisis is no time for half measures, Globe and Mail. This clearly-written profile left me optimistic, not a common feeling these days when I read the news.

Podcasts’ Slow Journalism is Where Reporting Meets Storytelling, J-Source. This is an essay I wrote about my experience as the Asper Fellow in journalism at Western University, i.e. a peek into another piece of the work I do.

Sign up for How To Get Heard in the Zoom Era, a workshop on October 20 at 7 pm ET, led by Media Girlfriends and Pandemic U, with support from Tavanberg Media. Pay what you can, proceeds go to the Media Girlfriends scholarship.

Source: Unsplash, Toa Heftiba