By Hannah Lynn
PITTSBURGH — At a press conference outside Spirit in Lawrenceville earlier this week, politicians, service industry workers, and venue owners gathered to plead for relief from the state legislature during the ongoing struggle of the pandemic. Hundreds of restaurants have closed permanently in Pennsylvania during the pandemic, and hundreds of thousands of service workers are out of jobs.
On Nov. 19, the Republican-led General Assembly decided to move forward with a budget plan to use the remaining $1.3 billion of the state’s relief aid, which could have been used to relieve the beleaguered service industry, to make up for gaps in the state budget. That budget was recently signed by Gov. Tom Wolf.
The press conference was organized by Democratic state Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Allegheny, who admonished some of her colleagues for their failure to provide aid to struggling businesses and families. State Rep. Austin Davis, and incoming state Rep. Emily Kinkead, also Allegheny County Democrats, also showed support.
“The majority party of the Pennsylvania general assembly passed a politically expedient and compassionless budget, one balanced by raiding and redirecting Pennsylvania’s remaining $1.3 billion of the pandemic relief fund,” said Innamorato. “We know this $1.3 billion wasn’t the panacea. It wasn’t solving all of our woes, but it was something to help people right now in the short term.”
The event featured several speakers from the industry, including Tom Barr, owner of Spirit, who said that the venue and restaurant has been able to scrape together enough money to get through the next couple months, but that he doesn’t know if they’ll be able to continue after it runs out.
Liz Berlin, owner of Mr. Smalls Theatre laid bare the struggles she and her husband have gone through in keeping the beloved Millvale venue afloat. She noted that they were used to having over 1,000 patrons a day and hundreds of events a year, and now they’re down to a handful of patrons visiting their coffee shop, and no events.
“Meanwhile the bills don’t stop. The gas, electric, insurance all still need to be paid,’ said Berlin. “You would not believe how much it costs to insure an empty building.”
“Small and mid-level venues like those and like Spirit are important stepping stones for tomorrow’s great artist,” said Berlin. “Mac Miller played a bar mitzvah at Mr. Smalls when he was a high school kid.”
There have been attempts throughout the pandemic to provide assistance to restaurants and venues, like the PPP Loan Program, which most businesses burned through months ago. Unemployment benefits tied to the pandemic are set to expire at the end of December.
In September, the National Independent Venues Association estimated that 90 percent of its members would close their business by October. In September, the National Restaurant Association estimated that 100,000 restaurants have closed throughout the country due to the pandemic, and the lack of relief.
Several restaurant and venue workers spoke about how they felt abandoned by the government, and that they were angry the government was telling people to stay home for the holidays while restaurants remain open for indoor dining, including on Thanksgiving.
“How does that work? Stay at home, except restaurant workers should feel free to spend their holidays with 200 maskless strangers, all for $2.83 a day,” said Richard Gegick, an employee at Morton’s Steakhouse, referencing the tipped minimum wage in Pennsylvania. “We’re here today because of the abject failure at all levels of government to provide proper care to the restaurant industry.”
Gegick went on to say that he is not willing to “play public health officer” with customers, and risk losing his already diminished tips.
“To my brothers and sisters working tomorrow, stay as safe as possible. You know we’ve deserved better for a long time,” said Gegick. “To all those in the United States Congress and the state houses, enjoy your turkey dinner.”
Jamie Fadden Cannon, a freelance lighting director, mentioned that those who work behind the scenes of events have real jobs, not what some people refer to as a “hobby.” She also made a direct appeal to politicians by noting that people in her field also provide lighting, sound, and other services for their rallies.
“If we don’t get relief soon, this could potentially flat-line the industry as we know it,” said Fadden Cannon.
The press conference wrapped up with Kacy McGill, co-founder of the Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid group, which formed at the beginning of the pandemic to provide financial help, meals, diapers, and other assistance to restaurant workers struggling to get by. They say the operation began on their front porch and now has two distribution centers.
“Right now, we feel like we’ve been left to ourselves,” said McGill. “We need political courage from our elected officials, because right now, we feel like we have two options – stay home and die, or go to work, and die.”