As a New York City chef and restaurateur, Camilla Marcus and her business were hit hard by the onset of the COVID-19 lockdowns last March. "It felt like being suspended in water and not being sure whether you're going to rise to the top or you're going to drown," Marcus told InStyle. After years of working her way through the restaurant industry in the city, Marcus had opened her dream space, west~bourne, in SoHo about two-and-a-half years ago. Her focus was on creating a neighborhood staple with a dedication to zero-waste. Unfortunately, everything that had once made the restaurant a local hot spot worked against it once lockdown began. "Our space went from a total gem — all communal seating, open kitchen, a small intimate space, diners meeting strangers and making new friends — to all of these aspects becoming the antithesis of what was needed for Covid protocol," she says.
So, after six months of uncertainty and no leniency from her landlord, Marcus had to make the difficult decision to close the doors to west~bourne in September of 2020, like so many other local businesses over the course of the last year. "The biggest challenge for me was feeling like I let the team down. To feel that in a crisis, I couldn't provide a home and a safety net for them was the most brutal thing," Marcus says.
Even with the closing of her own restaurant, Marcus stayed dedicated to helping others in the food industry. When the shutdown hit New York City on March 15th and the future of her own restaurant was unclear, she sprang into action and immediately got on the phone with her friends at Robin Hood, an organization fighting to end poverty in NYC. "In New York alone, the restaurant industry employs almost 1 million people. We are the second largest employer next to healthcare, by a lot," she says. "That's more than airlines nationwide. However, airlines have received two relief packages at the federal level. And they've never been shut down for one day." Meanwhile, restaurants have been arguably one of the most affected industries with mandated shutdowns and no level of federal relief.
Marcus says, "It was terrifying to hear from Robin Hood that their biggest fear was that this situation would be even worse for the city than 9/11, because there is no finite end date."
Within two weeks of that initial call, ROAR, Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants, was born. Together, the two organizations partnered to create a local relief fund, with almost $3 million raised to date and the mission of providing $500 cash grants for anyone in the restaurant industry who has been facing economic hardship during the pandemic. With everything happening essentially overnight, Marcus claims, "It felt so weird to be at the eye of the hurricane, but it sparked a revolution of advocacy."
In conjunction with the founding of ROAR, Marcus was brought on to help found the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) which seeks to address these issues at the national level. The number one goal is to initiate federal relief for restaurants. The pandemic has brought with it "the great reckoning," says Marcus. "My goal in all of this is to make lawmakers stop calling us small businesses. We're not hobbyist. We're not projects. This is a massive employment industry with 11 million people employed across the country and 15 million people if you count our supply chain," she states, continuing, "we've now all lived in a world without restaurants. It's not a pretty life."
Marcus feels hopeful that through her work with the IRC and the onset of the new administration, restaurants will finally achieve federal relief. The Senate is set to vote on the Restaurants Act, as included in President Biden's larger Covid Relief Act, after the measure was already passed in the House last week. Marcus and her team know that the bipartisan support they've gathered isn't enough, though. "We've moved mountains, but we're still sitting here without federal aid. These workers deserve to be heard, served, and taken care of when they've committed their entire lives to taking care of others."
What can we do to show our support for restaurants? According to Marcus, "Call your favorite restaurant and ask how you can help. Dine safely. Order takeout. Do a remote cooking class. Use your voice. Post on social media. Call your lawmakers. When there is a ground swell, they do feel pressure from their constituency. " You can also support Marcus directly by shopping at the west~bourne's online retail space.
All in all, the pandemic has only shined a light on just how impactful the restaurant industry is in our country. Says Marcus, "before last March, I don't think many knew how many people we employed. I don't think they thought about how big this industry is and how much we're ignored by our government. You are our village. The public and our guests are our village and we need them to be as loud as we are. We can't do it alone."
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