A great deal has been said about the need to support small, locally owned restaurants during the coronavirus outbreak. Because the inability to serve customers on-site has slashed many kitchens’ sales by more than half, it’s literally true that if we don’t patronize them now, we may never be able to do so again.
Unfortunately, squabbling has begun on social media about just how much support is enough. When every business in the service industry is in desperate need of customers, there’s a loud clamor for people to stop cooking beans and leave their houses for dinner. A corollary is a push to support locally-owned wine shops.
Peer pressure won’t save the food industry, of course. Many of us have seen our expendable incomes slashed or eliminated, and simply cannot afford to show love for local restaurants. Others are immunocompromised, older or otherwise at greater risk of disease. And some of us really enjoy cooking at home.
But no matter how low on funds you may be, no matter how far out of reach a takeout meal might seem right now, there is a vital way you can support the local food industry for years to come: by voting.
The current restaurant industry crisis was induced by a health scare, but the deeper fault lines are almost all political. And local, state and federal governments will decide whether the industry recovers, whether it becomes more sustainable or, perhaps, if it is monopolized by national corporate chains that can afford to miss a few months of profits. Politicians will decide whether relief money flows to Zoli’s NY Pizza or Domino’s Pizza.
Vote in federal elections. Dallas’ paid sick leave ordinance, which would have required private companies with more than five employees to offer sick days, would have taken effect during this pandemic. But the law was blocked by a federal judge appointed by President Donald Trump. If you didn’t vote in 2016, or if you thought the two main political parties were basically the same, now’s a good time to contemplate whether you support sick people being paid to take a day off.
Vote in state elections. The reason paid sick leave was struck down was a state law banning cities from governing themselves — one of many such state laws in regulation-heavy Texas, which also forbids cities from taxing or banning plastic bags. Gov. Greg Abbott has led a sluggish and purely reactive response to COVID-19, taking steps to prevent the virus’ spread only with great reluctance.
“What may be right for places like the large urban areas may not be right at this particular point of time for the more than 200 counties that have zero cases of COVID-19," Abbott said at a press conference March 22.
Since that press conference, 130 of those 200 counties have reported cases.
Vote in local elections. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, an elected official who has drawn local praise for his rapid efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus, recently clashed with county commissioners who are more concerned with getting the local economy back to normal. The commissioners are elected, too.
City Council members also play important roles. In the case of David Blewett — who represents most of the restaurants in Uptown, downtown, Oak Lawn and Lower Greenville — the execution of that role has been clownish. Blewett has made a habit of wasting council meeting time to demonstrate his ignorance on the deadliness of coronavirus and the severity of its threat.
All three of these levels of government will play critical roles when it’s time to put the restaurant industry back together again. Our federal government already made an attempt, with a small-business loan program that was rolled out chaotically, has unclear rules and may someday soon finally begin dispensing money.
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As a food writer, I get a lot of Facebook friend requests from chefs, cooks, bartenders, foodies and complete strangers. The political chatter I’ve seen there is dispiriting. Many service industry people profess total ignorance, declare that no candidate deserves support or fall back on the blatantly false assertion that everyone on the ballot is the same, so voting doesn’t matter.
Maybe the coronavirus crisis will help non-voters see how important their ballot is. Every action the government takes, or fails to take, is the result of political choices. Whether or not the restaurant industry gets adequate support is largely in the hands of our government, not individual diners. You can order takeout for lunch every single day until this isolation ends, and your support still won’t compare to smart public policy.
Read the news. Listen to restaurant, bar and brewery owners. Listen critically to what politicians are saying, and think for yourself about what they should be saying. Monitor the debates about whether coronavirus should bring about paid sick leave, voting by mail, healthcare reform or attempts to address systemic inequality.
Then, this fall and every other time you can make your voice heard, go out and vote. Next time a disaster strikes, restaurant owners will thank you.