BRAVING THE STORM
Mask Up, Gloves On, Fists Clenched: How One Chef Took On The Pandemic
“It’s impossible to characterize the magnitude of the social, personal, and economic carnage wreaked by the 2020 pandemic. Hyperbole comes up short, metaphors prove woefully elusive. There are a million stories of persistence, survival, desolation, hope, and heartbreak, all told with the common thread of pain.”
The world as we know it changed on March 11, 2020, when the novel coronavirus metastasized from a mysterious epidemic brewing in a distant Chinese province and exploded into an immediate and imminent global threat crashing on our shores, and at our doors. Like a ticking time bomb discovered in a time capsule, the pandemic blew apart every aspect of society, every corner of every city, town, and neighborhood.
This is a well-worn story worth retelling: basketball and soccer seasons abruptly ended, school classrooms cleared out, malls and Main Streets shuttered, office workers went home, college students told to pack up and not come back. Here in Colorado the Governor declared a State of Emergency and issued statewide Stay-At-Home orders, closing all bars, restaurants, theaters, gyms, and museums.
What happened next, no one predicted: all hell breaking loose at the supermarket. At a local King Soopers I stopped by to see for myself what was going viral on the internet: people frantically lugging oversized cases of paper towels, toilet paper, and bottled water to their cars, zig-zagging through the parking lot as if dodging golfball-sized hail in a hail storm. The sky was gray and the air was ominous, thick with doom, gloom, and panic.
Sitting in the car, I glanced at news alerts scrolling down my smartphone: ventilator and PPE shortages, community spread, quarantining, social distancing, viral load, flatten the curve. What sounded like scientific gibberish would soon become part of our daily jargon. Nearby, an elderly woman returning from a Bridge tournament died of COVID; other players were coming down sick. Ten Australian skiers vacationing in Aspen tested positive for COVID.
Inside the store, shelves were stripped bare. Pantry staples you’d expect to find in a bunker — dried beans, rice, canned vegetables, dried pasta, tuna fish — were cleaned out. Meat, poultry, and dairy coolers were emptied. The produce section looked like a tornado had touched down, with scattered vegetable and fruit fragments all over the place. Lines at the cash registers queued around the store like bumper cars. What started out as wacko run on toilet paper escalated into an all-out blizzard blitz, except there was no March snow in the forecast. Just a coronavirus maelstrom heading our way.
Not since 9/11 had I experienced such visceral dread. On that day of infamy, my eyes and ears tuned in to a staticky car radio broadcasting the impossible news of a passenger plane, and minutes later a second plane, flying into the World Trade Center in midtown Manhattan. The horror, the unspeakable grief of that day came seeping back. Then, as now, there was a desperate need to call home, to go home, to hear the voice of a loved one.
I texted my wife.
You see the news? Everything’s canceled.
No, I’m working. Soccer’s canceled?
The coronavirus. It’s here.
Yes. There’s a food riot at King Soopers. Not good.
Canceled for how long?
What about business?
Not sure. Seems like things are getting worse before they get better.
Oh right, the Business. The looming impact of living in the time of a global pandemic quickly gave way to more pressing matters: Will my business survive? I spent years developing a dinner delivery business, a virtual restaurant rooted in twenty-plus years in the brick-and-mortar culinary world, and I’d finally carved out a thriving niche (not bad for a second act.) Now this, a pandemic? That wasn’t in the business plan. Beads of sweat raced towards my brow.
Meanwhile, my phone was going berserk. When the COVID-19 updates weren’t streaming in, there was a surge of activity on my website — customers ordering dinners online. La dee dah, la dee dah — what’s for dinner? Apparently not too worried about the world crashing down. Even more curious, random people were joining my email list. All a tad surreal.
That night I laid awake, wondering how bad things would get. I grew up during the AIDS epidemic, the tragic nightmare that rudely interrupted Reagan’s glamorized morning in America. I remember Mad Cow Disease, the awful brain disease that was linked to eating tainted meat. Ebola virus scared the crap out of people but stayed far away on another continent, as did the swine and avian flu. In my lifetime, America seemed immune from any widespread viral catastrophe. Our only plagues were endemic school shootings and gun violence, terrible in their own right but preventable if it weren’t for gun nuts and the mafiosa NRA.
Until now. COVID-19 was on the verge of becoming the World War III of infectious disease outbreaks, and the aura of American exceptionalism — a global pandemic could never happen here — was under attack. Our zone of complacency (and perception of superiority) was breached. Yet Fox News (the state’s propaganda channel) would mock (and continue to deny and divert attention, to this day) the dire warnings from Dr. Fauci and other government health officials. The president — a walking minefield of disastrous leadership, false claims, and failed predictions— was quoted as saying one day it will miraculously disappear, it’s like the flu, soon the numbers will be down to zero.
I tossed and turned and worried about my kids, about my wife, about my business. In hindsight, I worried about stupid shit — was I going to run out of chicken? What if there was a nationwide food shortage? I worried about the guy at the gym on the treadmill next to me with the kennel cough. I worried about breaking the bank for “Hamilton” tickets last week — just as the economy was about to tank.
Later that day at the commissary kitchen, rumors swirled. Fellow workers nervously chatted about panic buying, restaurant closings, the chance of catching the virus from a trip to the store — or from a doorknob. The statewide ban on large gatherings shredded the event calendar and postponed upcoming weddings, mitzvahs, graduation parties, and company galas; friends in the catering business were crestfallen and sullen with shock. Cooks from the larger companies at the commissary worried about losing their jobs. (True, they could collect unemployment insurance, but no one wants to hear that. Despite what some may believe, most people want to work.)
One thing was certain: the prospect of any long term social isolation — quarantining — would be the death of the hospitality industry. If running an errand to the post office or store was fraught with risk — who’d venture out to eat at a restaurant? In the coming days, the commissary kitchen, normally a bustling hive of special event caterers, food truck operators, and wholesale bakers, all motivated self-starters who share spice racks and cooking tips (as well as kitchen gossip) felt more like an abandoned warehouse than a small business incubator.
A caterer on her way out the door turned to me and waved goodbye. “At least you’re safe,” she said.
“Safe for what?” I replied.
“Meal delivery is safe. You’re an essential worker.”
“Yeah, like nurses and doctors,” I said, half-laughing. “Food delivery is very essential.” I was kidding, sort of.
“No one wants to leave their house, and no one wants to starve, so, yeah, you are, kind of,” she said.
“Okay then, I should buckle down,” I said.
“Ya’ mean buckle up. You’re safe, but you gotta stay safe,” she said with a sad wink, before walking out.
I looked it up, and she was right. Essential Workers critical to the health and well being of the community and economy should continue to report to work. This includes nurses, doctors, health care administrators, first responders, as well as grocery store clerks, transport workers…and food service workers preparing meals for delivery or take-out.
In retrospect, I’m not sure why I didn't connect the dots. If restaurants were banned from serving dine-in customers, and grocery stores were devolving into mob scenes and barren shelves, and droves of people were reluctant to venture out, of course, it made sense that meal delivery businesses would not only benefit but would be considered an essential service. Granted, a nurse or doctor working the overnight shift in the ER was an ocean apart from a food business delivering gourmet dinners of wild salmon with lemon-parsley butter and chimichurri chicken with fingerling potatoes, but as an essential worker in the COVID economy, we all had a role to fill.
But with a virulent, highly contagious disease in our midst, how do you continue to work and stay safe? While the rest of the world was sheltering in place (the rush hour commute felt more like a Sunday morning drive, the streets were empty), essential workers were toiling in the middle of a toxic storm. The mission was survival: Do your job, and whatever you do, don’t get sick. Wash your hands, avoid crowds, take your temperature, don’t touch your damn face, wear gloves (but change them frequently) and most importantly, wear a mask.
Gloves were not a problem — I glove up every day in the kitchen; I had cases of gloves. But masks? Where do you find a mask?
That was a no-brainer; the internet answered the call. Within days of the statewide shut-down, social entrepreneurs posted on neighborhood web sites offering multiple styles of inexpensive cloth masks and facial coverings. Pay with Venmo and your masks would be ready for porch pick-up. Additionally, friends dusted off their sewing skills and pitched in with homemade versions.
It turns out, masks were the easy part. Staying safe — that was the hard part. I had to stay safe, my family and coworkers had to stay safe, my entire bubble had to stay safe. As an essential worker, I had a job to do, which was to provide (and deliver) a whole lot of essential meals to people (many of them high-risk senior citizens.) I checked my temperature every morning, I wore a mask in the kitchen and in public; gloves and hand sanitizers were my new best friends.
There was one more task at hand: At the time, the local climate was ripe with fear, anxiety, and teetering towards panic. Understandably so, people were worried not just about getting the coronavirus, but about getting laid off from their jobs or suffering a steep drop in income. The stock market had crashed, no one was thinking about buying cars or houses or televisions. The economy was convulsing. The Colorado sky was blue, but the mood was stone-cold gray.
There was rumblings of divisive chatter on social media, as sirens of cynicism sounded off about The State urging people to stay home and mask up. There was a growing push back against the decision to close bars, restaurants, and gyms; people were unsettled and agitated. On one hand, there are people raised to distrust the government (especially in rural areas); on the other hand, an innocent sneeze or cough could unleash a lethal aerosol spray of contagions across the room (like a can of hair spray, although a blow torch might be a better allusion.)
As a longtime business owner and community member, I felt an obligation to step up and provide a sense of clarity, calm, and resolve. (This did not come naturally; in my decades of working in restaurants, I never worked the front of the house. I was always the owner in the back, behind the scenes in the kitchen.) I needed to deliver a message to the public via neighborhood social media sites, and while my social posts often veer toward the garrulous, it had to be short, sweet, and to the point.
I’ll make this quick: Support your local small businesses, the people who know your name, the people who’ve earned your trust. We’ll take care of you, and your loved ones. And you’ll take care of us. WE’RE IN THIS FIGHT TOGETHER.
The days and weeks ahead were unlike anything I had ever experienced. The dinner delivery business was off the charts — everything tripled in volume. Triple the chicken dishes, triple the salmon, triple the roasted tofu and soups, triple the brown rice, pasta, and pounds of diced onions, peppers, and mushrooms. And triple the desserts; the more decadent, the better — red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting, double chocolate bundt cake, chocolate swirl cheesecake, key lime pie. Turns out, sweets are a balm for the pandemic soul.
Month after month, as the entire country succumbed to the ravages of COVID-19, and the outside world shrunk to people’s sidewalks and back yards, my virtual restaurant business continued to deliver weekly nourishment to a growing number of families, homebound seniors, busy couples, and health care workers too busy (or too exhausted) to cook. Leaving for work at 5:30 in the morning, driving on deserted roads that were once filled with rush hour traffic, I often repeated this mantra: Masks up, gloves on, fists clenched, I will brave this f*cking storm.
Despite owning a booming business, there was little to celebrate. How can one feel joy when local hospitals are filling up, customers and fellow restaurant workers are out of work, schools are closed. My twin teenagers lost the best part of their senior year; there were no graduations, proms, or soccer games. My youngest would not properly celebrate her graduation from elementary school (although a car parade/rally later in the spring organized by teachers proved to be memorable and joyous.) My oldest child flew home from college and finished her classes online in the living room, her summer abroad scuttled.
Before COVID-19, I never thought of myself as an Essential Worker. A restaurant owner, chef, entrepreneur, part of the diverse diaspora of small business owners doing their best to succeed in a competitive world, I felt all that. Maybe to my family I am essential — I keep the refrigerator full and they get to school and soccer practice on time — but not essential for the public good. I have a much deeper appreciation for the real essential workers of the pandemic, the heroic nurses, doctors, administrators, and first responders working the front lines, as well as grocery clerks, food service workers, and transport workers, all who step into harm’s way the moment they arrive for work.
More than the star athlete, blustery politician, or strutting video star, Essential Workers are the modern-day heroes of the 2020 Pandemic. With them on our side, we’ll win this fight, we’ll brave this storm, together.
- Jay Solomon is the owner of JAYS2GO, a dinner delivery service based in Denver, Colorado. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.