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Chef: We need seismic change, right now

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The restaurant industry estimates up to seven million people will lose their jobs in the next three months because of coronavirus. Josh Souder, director of operations at IE Entertainment Group which owns The Drunken Crab, was forced to lay off 75 employees in one day.

Posted: Mar 24, 2020 6:11 AM
Updated: Mar 24, 2020 6:11 AM

This past week has been the toughest of my career, as I'm sure is true for many of you. My city, New York, is under siege by this cruel and relentless virus. Most of my restaurants are now closed, other than the few mostly serving limited takeout and delivery. Millions of people in my industry are suddenly out of work, and no one knows when -- or whether -- relief will come.

I am a chef by training, and certainly not a policy expert, but I can share insights from three unique vantage points: 1) as someone who works and lives in the economically disadvantaged neighborhood of Harlem; 2) as a small-business owner who employs and works alongside the residents of my community; and 3) as an émigré who grew up in Sweden, which taught me valuable lessons in how a government can and should care for its own.

Let's start with the first point. During this crisis, we need to be especially concerned about our nation's food-insecure population -- and think about nutrition the same way we think about health care. Food is as vital a resource as medicine. It's clear that this virus is going to have a devastating impact on urban communities like mine. We have to ensure we're not compounding that with the unnecessary deaths of our food-insecure neighbors.

For the past five years, through our Harlem EatUp! festival, we've partnered with Citymeals, which was already serving weekend, holiday and emergency meals to more than 18,000 homebound residents of Harlem and beyond, and now face a rapid increase in demand. Having joined on these meal deliveries with my friend and Citymeals board co-President Daniel Boulud, I can tell you that the recipients literally will not survive without those services.

We know the ranks of the food-insecure will grow exponentially in the weeks and months ahead. That's why we've partnered with organizations such as José Andres' World Central Kitchen to turn our restaurants into community kitchens.

But non-profits and restaurateurs can't do this work alone. We need federal, state and local governments to support these efforts, in the same way they're ramping up medical systems. My peers across the restaurant industry are clamoring for ways to help -- and we need federal and local guidelines as well as funding to ensure our help is delivered safely, legally and effectively. All levels of government must step up, not just with money but with strategic assistance and direction.

To the second point: As a business owner with restaurants in eight different countries, I'm in the heartbreaking position of seeing thousands of employees forced to go on unemployment across the globe. In the United States, however, the benefits are far too low and don't last nearly long enough. The American unemployment system is built to "tide you over" while you quickly find another job -- it's not designed to support you if no jobs are available because your industry no longer exists.

In this time of crisis, the federal government should immediately act to double the unemployment benefit for every affected American, extending the term from a length of varying weeks (most states offer 26 but some offer more or much less) to a standard of 200+ days (which, by the way, is what Sweden covers). Benefits should also be expanded to cover unemployed workers' health coverage, be it COBRA payments or premiums. We must begin decoupling health care from our jobs -- especially now that many of those jobs don't exist.

Finally, we now have critical industries asking low-paid workers to continue working under dangerous circumstances. Not just our heroic health workers and first responders, but also the tireless grocery workers, the restaurant workers still handling takeout and delivery, the truck drivers hauling produce and countless others in the food industry. Without these critical links, our supply chain would fall apart, and the nation's food system would collapse.

For this reason, the federal government must step in to protect our vulnerable food industry workers, by providing safety equipment, setting guidelines to ensure a safe and healthy work environment, and, most of all, by matching (i.e. doubling) wages to give our critical workers the financial support they desperately need and deserve. That family-run corner deli on my block? They don't make a lot of money, but they're a vital lifeline for our community -- and in neighborhoods like ours, their value is a hundred times what they're earning.

As you may have noticed, most of my proposed solutions call for more government action. That's partly because I grew up in Sweden, where I learned the value of a government that offers help directly to its citizens -- through smart, sustainable, sensible state-run programs -- not just indirectly through banks and corporations, or relying on charities and non-governmental organizations to step in and fill the void. I chose long ago to become a US citizen and love this country dearly. But I can't wonder how things might work if the wealthiest, most technologically advanced country in the world were a little more like Sweden.

The fact is, the same old fixes won't work this time, if they ever really did. There's no point in offering a restaurant a no-interest small-business loan when the restaurant industry may not survive in the first place. We need seismic change, and we need it right now. I know our politicians are working through the weekend to formulate another stimulus plan. Let's make sure they don't leave out the most important ingredient -- helping the people who are truly in need.

Join me in reaching out to your elected officials to demand action. You can find them here.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 605426

Reported Deaths: 9642
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion836221331
Lake45189680
Allen32646547
Hamilton29240315
St. Joseph27260380
Elkhart24354344
Vanderburgh19292248
Tippecanoe17905133
Johnson14974293
Porter14707168
Hendricks14295248
Madison10909220
Vigo10688179
Clark10581139
Monroe9338110
Delaware9089134
LaPorte9007162
Howard8177143
Kosciusko803182
Warrick668798
Hancock6639104
Bartholomew6443100
Floyd6377109
Wayne6106161
Grant5965115
Dubois554079
Boone549467
Morgan535595
Henry505564
Marshall502684
Cass482663
Dearborn476245
Noble471257
Jackson421947
Shelby413881
Lawrence389179
Clinton372043
Gibson369159
DeKalb345964
Harrison345644
Montgomery343354
Knox334339
Miami319844
Steuben313045
Whitley304526
Wabash301447
Adams299635
Ripley297545
Putnam294149
Huntington290659
Jasper288134
White272242
Daviess266774
Jefferson262538
Decatur246583
Fayette246348
Greene239262
Posey238128
Wells234050
LaGrange227662
Scott223439
Clay221832
Randolph212848
Jennings197736
Sullivan191133
Spencer190121
Washington183722
Fountain183127
Starke174843
Jay167022
Owen163637
Fulton163130
Orange157234
Carroll156415
Rush154418
Perry152727
Vermillion148634
Franklin147833
Tipton131832
Parke13038
Pike116226
Blackford110922
Pulaski96837
Newton90721
Brown87534
Benton86510
Crawford7929
Martin73013
Warren6777
Switzerland6575
Union6267
Ohio4867
Unassigned0375

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 853982

Reported Deaths: 10599
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin100550707
Cuyahoga849601082
Hamilton63509448
Montgomery42863417
Summit34586759
Lucas31151616
Butler30735231
Stark25598430
Warren19552140
Lorain18847223
Mahoning17215337
Lake15967154
Clermont15800111
Delaware1430578
Licking13130137
Trumbull12739313
Fairfield1269181
Greene11975136
Medina11504168
Clark10867265
Wood10289158
Allen9826126
Portage9213108
Miami911373
Richland9085117
Marion7437113
Tuscarawas7339181
Columbiana7286124
Pickaway721750
Wayne6987171
Muskingum693941
Erie6113127
Hancock549090
Ross546098
Scioto536364
Geauga503855
Darke467892
Ashtabula451073
Lawrence450154
Union447728
Sandusky434762
Mercer432488
Huron425441
Seneca424865
Auglaize421164
Shelby420522
Jefferson416769
Belmont412740
Washington385240
Athens37669
Putnam373575
Madison352129
Knox350222
Ashland342838
Fulton336543
Defiance328282
Crawford320573
Preble319137
Brown309121
Logan305532
Ottawa290143
Clinton287943
Williams277167
Highland273718
Jackson262445
Guernsey251325
Champaign249728
Fayette235130
Morrow23124
Perry228718
Holmes223874
Henry217349
Hardin211333
Coshocton204521
Van Wert201145
Gallia195426
Wyandot194651
Pike173917
Adams173015
Hocking171024
Carroll154216
Paulding143421
Noble120340
Meigs108024
Monroe100631
Harrison88421
Morgan82629
Vinton69513
Unassigned00
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