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At least 770,000 people around the world have lost their lives to COVID-19. Losing a loved one to the disease has been particularly difficult for local hospitality professionals who have already seen the pandemic decimate their industry. Whether they’re ensuring tables are 6 feet apart or reminding patrons to put on their masks, every move is made while thinking about the virus that killed someone close to them. Reconciling these two realities brings up complicated emotions. Some workers say the experience has given them a fresh perspective on the bar and restaurant industry.
Mack Ordaya followed his father into the restaurant business. Alberto Ordaya was a chef in D.C. for decades, and left D.C. in February to care for his mother in Peru. COVID-19 infiltrated their small community and infected Alberto and a number of his brothers and sisters. “It happened really, really fast,” Ordaya says. “The doctor says he might have had it for 10 days before he died.” His father was eventually admitted to a hospital and put on a ventilator.
Alberto passed away on Aug. 1, at the age of 66. While Ordaya had the chance to FaceTime with his father a few weeks earlier, he didn’t get to say a proper goodbye. He remembers his dad first and foremost as a hard worker, sometimes to a fault.
“He was working too much—60 or 70 hours a week,” Ordaya says. His father had one stroke in the early 2000s and another three years ago, when Ordaya was working at Bluejacket. After the second stroke, Ordaya paused to consider how much time he himself was spending on the clock. “No one should work to live. I feel like we all do that too much.”
Now Ordaya is employed part time as a server at The Salt Line, where he says he feels safe. The owners are taking precautions to protect staff from contracting COVID-19. “We have managers patrolling the floor, making sure people are wearing masks the whole time,” he says. “They set a good example. They’re not killing anyone with hours.”
But Ordaya recognizes that not everyone can afford to work less, especially in a city as expensive as D.C. A 2019 SmartAsset study found an individual needs to earn around $133,000 before taxes to afford the average apartment rental price in the District.
“We shouldn’t have to work 80 hours a week to pay rent,” Ordaya says. “We’re killing ourselves. All these people have a second job. There’s got to be some sort of way to have rent-controlled, livable places where we don’t have to pay $2,400 for a one-bedroom.”
He also believes restaurants and bars, should they survive the pandemic, could pay their employees more. “This industry needs to find a way where all of us in the front of house and the back of house aren’t working ourselves to death,” he says.
Owners, too, have much to grapple with right now, including Nic Makris. He’s behind The Blaguard and Homestead and lost his father-in-law, Iraj Askarinam, to COVID-19 on June 2. The two men were close—when Makris’ own father died in 2002, Askarinam stepped in, playing both a paternal and mentor role in Makris’ life.
Makris began dating Askarinam’s daughter, Elizabeth, in 2000, when he was 16, and worked for his future father-in-law throughout much of his career in the hospitality industry. “He was a very stick to his guns person who was always willing to give advice, unsolicited,” Makris says. “If he disagreed or had something to say, he had to tell you. He’s a serial oversharer. I can’t put enough emphasis on that.”
Askarinam, who opened Spaghetti Garden in Adams Morgan in 1981, was known to many around town as “Mr. Spaghetti.” He and his brothers went on to own a handful of other bars and restaurants in the neighborhood, including Brass Monkey. Askarinam taught Makris, a budding restaurateur in his own right, how to be independent and when to take risks.
Makris has operated his restaurants throughout the pandemic, offering takeout and delivery at The Blaguard and some outdoor seating at Homestead. The whole time he was trying to make ends meet, he had Askarinam in mind. “I was worried for the health and safety of my father-in-law,” he says. “I begged him to stay home and told him not to come over because I had decided to continue working.”
Askarinam still contracted COVID-19 and died at the age of 76 at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. Elizabeth was able to say goodbye in person, but everyone else had to say farewell on FaceTime.
Because Askarinam was an Iranian Jew, the family finagled a way to sit shiva over Zoom. As is tradition, the family gathered for seven days to mourn. Even a rabbi signed onto the virtual platform. But the Askarinams deviated from the norm to be as inclusive as possible. “We opened it to the public,” Makris says, which allowed Askarinam’s former employees to participate. “His life was not centered in a synagogue. It was centered at Brass Monkey.” They said prayers, and close family and friends shared stories. “It was really helpful to experience that and mourn the loss and the struggle and the hardship together,” Makris says. Still, it’s been an emotional summer.
“Everyone is mourning the loss of their pre-COVID life,” Makris says. “To also lose a loved one I’ve known and considered family, it was just really hard. And all of my livelihood is in limbo. I’d love to feel confident that my restaurant is going to make it through this. We will if we’re willing to spend every dollar in savings we have. There’s just so much loss we’re feeling.”
Askarinam’s death continues to weigh on Makris. “It’s definitely affecting how I’m operating and how I’m feeling,” he says. Makris remains nervous about the future, but for now he’s concentrating on keeping his staff safe while also bringing in enough revenue to outlast the pandemic. “If the goal is to live and get to the other side of COVID, I’d like to get my businesses going again. I’ve been flighting, and I need to fight.”
Bartender Allison Lane has been fighting for months in response to the killing ofGeorge Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. She wasone of about 70 people who took shelter in a home on Swann Street NW during the protests against anti-Black racism and violence at the beginning of June.
Lane live-tweeted her experience with police that night, and her comments quickly went viral. The tense situation prompted her to start a nonprofit called Bartenders Against Racism that works to combat racism and discrimination in the hospitality industry through awareness, education, and leadership development initiatives.
“I was trying to figure out where I fit in with my family now, and my friends,” she says. “I expected certain bad things to happen, like people being hateful about BAR. I didn’t think about personal things, like my family getting sick.”
But that’s what happened. On Aug. 2, Lane lost her aunt, Sonya, to complications related to COVID-19. “She was an incredible woman who took care of everyone in the family,” Lane says. “When she passed, it was really, really sad. The worst part is COVID is so vicious. I can’t see her being a person who wasn’t wearing a mask. She was probably caring for her two elder parents. I can only imagine she was doing things that were benefiting her community.”
Sonya, who was 55, was living in West Virginia, where Lane’s family hails from. “They put her in the hospital on a ventilator,” Lane says. “Then she was brain-dead a week later. It just ravaged her body.”
Lane says she’s tried therapy to help her cope with both the death of her aunt and all of the changes in her life. She recommends Talkspace, an online therapy app that she says is affordable and flexible. She’s currently working at a bar, Electric Cool-Aid, that’sentirely outdoors, which brings her some comfort.
“I feel 70 percent safe,” she states. “I’m not going back to working inside. I just can’t see it happening.” Like other hospitality professionals, she’s frustrated with customers who don’t respect rules that either the city or a venue have enacted to limit community spread of the virus. “‘Curt but kind’ is my motto,” she says. “I wish patrons were a little more concerned about the safety of their community.”
Amber Bursik, who co-ownsDC9 Nightclub, agrees. She lost her mom, Katy, the day before Mother’s Day. Katy was 69 years old and living in a group house in the D.C. area with people around the same age when she died. “She failed to tell me someone in the house had COVID and was in the hospital for over two weeks,” Bursik says. “They came home after getting the all-clear, then went back to the hospital. Two days later, my mom passed away. I didn’t even know she was sick. She died at home.”
While Bursik says no autopsy was performed to confirm that COVID-19 complications caused her mother’s death, she’s convinced that’s what happened. She didn’t get to say goodbye and found out when a Montgomery County police officer called as she was leaving work on a Saturday night.
They weren’t very close. “We’re a mother and daughter,” Bursik says. “I’m an only child and she’s a single parent. A lot goes along with that.” Still, she could have used more time to process what transpired. “I definitely had to focus on work. There’s no other option for us at this point,” she says. “We’re all in survival mode.”
Bursik took one day off to pick up her mother’s belongings, and got tested before coming back to the nightclub. She says it’s ironic she had to pick up her mother’s cremated remains through curbside pickup, the same service she offers for food and drink at her nightclub.
DC9 was taking COVID-19 seriously before Katy died, but the death further cemented how dangerous this pandemic is. “Before it happened, I sat with it for a little and thought we would open up indoor dining and events,” Bursik says. “We’d had some things planned out and scheduled and now we’re not comfortable with it. Not at all.”
The DC9 team is utilizing its roof deck and recently applied to erect a “parklet” that will enable them to expand how many seats are available outdoors. Bursik says she was unwilling to do that until the city mandated that masks be worn in public, hoping the rule would have some teeth and help them enforce the policy.
“There’s still a frustration level of people not taking it seriously,” she says. “I’ve lost someone and imminently, at any point, we could lose our business too.”