By Andrew Keshner
For Washington D.C. bartender Zac Hoffman, first came the relief. Then came the worry.
Hoffman was getting ready to come into work Wednesday afternoon when he saw news about a rally of President Donald Trump’s supporters becoming a siege by some on the U.S. Capitol.
Hoffman contacted his boss at the upscale Mediterranean restaurant, which was a five-minute drive from the unraveling chaos. In earlier, better days, he’d serve drinks to federal lawmakers discussing policy matters or staffers unwinding after work.
But Wednesday, Hoffman wanted to be sure his boss knew about the news and the district-wide 6 p.m. curfew that night.
“Don’t even come,” Hoffman recalled his Café Fili boss telling him. “I said, ‘Great, awesome.'”
At that moment, Hoffman had no appetite to work.
Last November, members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group, cursed out Hoffman over a bullhorn as he walked into his restaurant. All Hoffman said he did was make eye contact with one.
So Hoffman, like millions across the country, watched the riot on television temporarily disrupt Joe Biden’s certification as the country’s 46 president. Four people died Wednesday and Brian Sicknick, a police officer, died Thursday because of his injuries.
It was a “ failed insurrection, ” according to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
With coronavirus cases surging , Washington D.C. implemented a temporary ban on indoor dining, so the business from outdoor seating would have been slow. Hoffman said he probably would have earned $100 in the shift.
But as Wednesday night wore on, Hoffman realized, “I’m going to really miss that $100. I’m probably going to need it at the end of the month.” $100 is about one-fourth of Hoffman’s weekly earnings at this point, he estimated.
Like so many others in the food-service industry, the pandemic has been especially tough for Hoffman.
The 28-year-old experienced the financial pain personally, completely out of work for four months, and saw others face it in his unpaid role as executive vice president of the D.C. Bar and Restaurant Workers Alliance, an advocacy group for food service workers.
(Hoffman is also a commissioner in the District of Columbia’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission, where he serves, unpaid, as a neighborhood voice in the local government.)
Now he worries Wednesday’s events will crimp inauguration-time foot traffic even more, beyond the pandemic’s damage. Long before Wednesday, Biden was planning a stripped-down inauguration as a precaution against spreading COVID-19.
The nation’s capital is “uniquely positioned in a negative way right now. … That directly leads to less take home pay for workers — pandemic notwithstanding,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman’s headaches are another example of the collateral damage that comes when protests and rallies turn violent.
Preliminary estimates on insured property losses are more than $1 billion after some people looted during protests over George Floyd’s death in police custody, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
It would be the costliest civil disorder event, the industry-funded consumer education group said. The 1992 Los Angeles riots after the police officer acquittal in the Rodney King beating case cost insurers $775 million (or $1.4 billion in 2020 dollars.)
Hoffman said he marched in the Floyd protests and remembered one time when what he believed to be a rubber bullet whistled by. His restaurant didn’t close at that time and Hoffman didn’t lose any shifts, he said.
The potential pall on restaurant business in the region also comes at a tough time for eateries all over. The economy lost 140,000 jobs in December, with gains in some sectors offset by loses elsewhere. Restaurants lost 372,000 jobs last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said. The jobless rate stayed at 6.7%.
Inaugurations are typically a time for more restaurant customers, and result in more take-home money for restaurant workers, said Sekou Siby, executive director at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which presses for better food service worker pay and conditions in chapters across the country, including Washington D.C.
“Because of the public-health crisis, we don’t know how it’s going to be,” Siby said. The riots could heighten consumer hesitancy to hang around the nation’s capital, he said. “Our members are in a very desperate position now,” he said.
The $300 a week in extra unemployment benefits, a provision in the $900 billion rescue bill, isn’t enough to help and the prospect of $2,000 stimulus checks won’t make much of a dent either, Siby said. It will take some restaurant workers years to pay down debts they’ve incurred this year, he said.
Hoffman remembers how much money inaugurations can bring to town. During Trump’s inauguration, Hoffman remembers “a very busy weekend. Parties all over the place. The bar always packed, always three deep.”
He doesn’t remember his earnings working the bar that weekend, but Hoffman said brisk business like that can result in “a couple grand in cash” — money that can cover rent a couple months, he added.
“It’s going to be a very different time,” in a couple weeks, Hoffman said. “I’ll be happily surprised if I get a couple extra tables,” he later added.