Service workers raise awareness of the coronavirus challenges faced by frontline staffers

Andy Downing
A photo from the caravan organized to bring awareness to the plight of service workers amid the coronavirus

In the days leading up to Gov. Mike DeWine’s announcement that restaurants could resume dine-in services beginning in May, following nearly two months of shutdowns driven by COVID-19, a group of service industry workers joined to spearhead a campaign designed to remind the public that the threat had not passed and that frontline employees would be the ones most endangered by bars and restaurants opening too soon and without proper safety measures put in place.

“[The group] started as a very organic, very word of mouth thing,” said Alex, who has worked at a restaurant in the Short North for nearly a decade and withheld his last name due to the up-in-the-air nature of his employment. “And my priorities were the safety of workers and customers, as well as the basic kind of existential questions about being on the frontlines in a pandemic.”

Organizing online via a Facebook group and Zoom calls, the loose-knit, grassroots organization, dubbed the Short North Hospitality Service Workers Association, planned a series of actions, including a protest caravan designed to draw awareness to the plight faced by workers, many of whom were compelled to return to a public-facing role even as questions about the short- and long-term hazards of the coronavirus remained.

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Alex first registered concern about COVID-19 in January, as he read about its spread, though the reality didn’t really hit home until he found himself serving international attendees to the Arnold Classic who still traveled to Columbus in spite of DeWine’s decision to preemptively cancel the event. “There was a group from Australia, randomly, which didn’t get the memo and still came here, and then they had nothing to do,” he said. “And then there were a couple of guys from England sitting at the bar, and I remember feeling like, ‘This is really weird that this is still happening when there’s this [pandemic] hitting across the world.’ I think it was the week after that when I started bringing in my own [sanitizing] wipes to work.”

Alex said a part of his push for the group, which started to pick up momentum in early May, was driven by the reality that no matter what protocols businesses put into place, most frontline service workers were going to be taking on a frontline role in public health. “Just because of the practicality of it, we have to be the ones to take the initiative,” he said.

In more recent days, however, Alex and others in the group have reprioritized actions as protests driven by the police killings of black men and women have swept across the country, with Columbus now a week into growing, largely peaceful demonstrations to which police have responded with tear gas, pepper spray and non-lethal projectiles, a heavy-handed approach that has continued todraw criticism.

“I feel like I have some privilege because I was pissed off about having to go back to work in unsafe conditions when it’s clear there are bigger issues,” Alex said. “I felt a bit put in my place.”

As a result, activity around the COVID-awareness push has slowed, though one of the group’s leaders, Jordan Mitchell, reiterated that he viewed the two movements as interconnected.

“For me, right now it’s been more important to be Downtown,” said Mitchell, who has spent the better part of the last week marching, a time in which he’s been repeatedly tear gassed and shot at with non-lethal projectiles by police. “I think that, for me, and I can’t speak for the group, but I would like to use this momentum to bring more people into what I don’t just see as a civil rights movement or a workers’ rights movement, but a class movement that everybody needs to pay attention to and get involved with in any way that they’re comfortable.

“They’re so closely related that to consolidate power for all of our movements and all of the struggles we’re going through, we need to be sympathetic to each other and continue to move forward despite what’s in front of us.”