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COMMENTARY: A restaurateur reflects on the costs of COVID


Sociologists call us “third places” — restaurants, bars, coffee shops, gyms, retail shops, salons, houses of worship, anywhere that we spend or time that is neither home nor work. They’ll posit that third places are essential in both community development and identity — they are places where people go to bond with each other, and such bonds are critical to the health of society. In recognition of the importance of places like these, developers and urban planners incorporate them into their plans.

As a restaurant owner, but more importantly operator, I have personally witnessed the first dates, rekindlings, marriages, dancing, laughing, and buzzy discourse that take place. People simply come together at our (their, really) third places. These third places are where we enrich our lives, add color to our days, fall in love, and gain perspective, empathy, and wisdom. Each of us has a human propensity to develop a bond with our community, and I believe that third places are the conduit to doing so.

Now, every third place has ownership and leadership behind it. These are the people who put their passion to work in order to weave their businesses into the fabric of a community. Each business has employees who become propagators, in their own wonderfully personal ways, of that passion. Strength and diversity within our communities are built on the foundation of these businesses through the interaction of owners, workers, and patrons. Anyone who has ever built anything or owned anything knows that it’s not all glory and gain.
  • Ox and Stone.
It’s a lot like parenting — it becomes the very center of our universe, something that never gets turned off or shut down for the day, and for every wonderfully gratifying bright spot there is a darker shadow that we do our best to keep hidden: shadows of stress, doubt, worry, angst, and uncertainty over all that we cannot control or foresee that could possibly damage this thing we care so deeply for. But, like I said—it’s the wonderfully gratifying parts that make it all worthwhile, that make us certain that there’s nothing else we’d possibly be called to do. And the brightness comes in many forms, but all forms revolve around the warmth we give and receive in the community, and the fact that we are allowed to work as hard as we want to cultivate such warmth.

My professional perspective on the COVID experience, especially as it pertains to restrictions, has helped me gain an understanding of the profound effects it has had on people and our communities.

An undertone of an Us-Versus-Them mentality prevails any time I make any sort of comment about the many difficulties COVID has caused my restaurants. “Difficulties? Yeah, but what about the Deaths?” The deaths are tragic, and I think that it is beyond comprehension what any family affected in that way has had to endure. I am not interested in evaluating decisions by weighing jobs in one hand and mortality or health in the other. For me, that is an easy choice — there is nothing more important than one’s life and health.
The Daily Refresher. - PHOTO BY JONATHAN SWAN
  • The Daily Refresher.
But it is that very dangerous dichotomy that many of us have struggled with over the last several months. It is that dichotomy that has sullied our perspective and nullified our viewpoints. And in fact, throughout this COVID experience, I’ve continuously told myself that my leadership responsibility is to convey only optimism and strength to our guests and employees. I thought I’d take those core values and apply them to a mission that would get us through the pandemic. It became normal for me to feel the rancor of deceit as I told my guests that we were doing "OK", and that take-out business was enough. So, while we were taking extra steps to keep people safe, we also attempted to do so gracefully and quietly so people would be able to enjoy a moment of pause from what could too easily feel like a dreadful “new normal” to our beloved patrons.

Small business owners are proud people, and I think our governor knows that. He knew that he could rely on us to make silent sacrifice, to be endlessly creative, to not give up, and to give everything we possibly have to give. Our leaders have been so concerned with saving lives that they forgot about saving where our lives are lived. I wonder how long it will be before they’ll realize they’ve sacrificed the health of our communities and societies. One thing I have realized is that the only thing I have done in presenting a façade of “hanging in there” is jeopardize the very fabric of our society because the reality is the glaring, horrifying number of third places that have already shuttered, and the countless more that will not survive the winter.

Swan Dive is closed down for business for the time being. - PHOTO BY RENÉE HEININGER
  • Swan Dive is closed down for business for the time being.
I believe in preserving life and the measures that we need to take to get there. I’m proud to embrace science and pursue safety. I believe that any life taken by COVID is a tragedy and I’m willing to make logical, sensible sacrifices alongside every other member of society. I’m not afraid to admit that I do not know what the answer is, but I know that it is not my job to know the answer — my job, rather, has been arbitrarily stolen from me and so many others, zone by zone, with no relief in sight. I would argue that the sacrifices our government expects its people to make are grossly unequal depending on one’s profession, financial standing, and even zip code. Small businesses, specifically those who have been shut down, have been unfairly taken advantage of in the name of preservation of health—and while this may have felt unavoidable at the outset of a virus cloaked in so much fear and unknown, we are armed with way too much information now to let history repeat itself.

Because of this, I reject the term “new normal.” This experience is anything but normal and should be anything but normalized. The idea that an entire industry can be completely un-aided during this time should be totally and categorically rejected by all of us. Until we are helped, our communities, and so many of our community members, will hang in the balance.

We, the third places need help: real, unveiled, easily accessible help. We need our leaders to recognize what is being lost, we need our third places and their employees to be considered when future mandates are made. We need you, the reader, to recognize and fully appreciate what we’ll lose to COVID if our government doesn’t help our devastated and beloved third places.

Jonathan Swan is the owner of the Swan Family of Restaurants, which include the Daily Refresher, Dorado, Ox and Stone, Roux, Swan Dive, and Vern's.