The Day Covid Changed Our Restaurant World
It was Friday, March 13th, 2020, and I was about to leave the restaurant I’ve been the Executive Chef at for the last five years and head to LA for a three-day weekend. This was a trip I’d been excited about for some time, to see a friend that I had worked with twenty years ago and recently reconnected with. I was nervous. Not about seeing my friend (not exactly), but what I was feeling in the air all around me. In my thirty years as a chef, I have been through every imaginable challenge in the restaurant business, but I’d never experienced anything like this. Sales had been steadily declining over the past week. This new virus we’d been hearing about was beginning to change things. I had ordered extra toilet paper, sanitizer, and hand soap, and instructed my sous chef and cooks not to order too much product or prep too much. It would be fine, I told myself. These were just precautions, a little slow down. Maybe I shouldn’t leave right now, but… I put back a quick shot of tequila, said “fuck it,” and headed to the airport.
Walking into the airport was creepy. I had my bottle of sanitizer and gloves on. I’d never seen so few people at Denver International Airport, and the people I did see all looked a little freaked out. Like me. What kind of warped reality am I living in, I asked myself? But nah: it’s fine. It’ll all blow over soon, right?. Boarding the plane, I was relieved to note less than twenty people on the flight. I even had my own row. I sanitized all the seats as a precaution and settled in. A few people were wearing masks. Are they sick? Just scared? But I opened my book and felt increasingly relaxed as we taxied to the runway. Power up, wheels up, I was on my way. … It was going to be a great weekend.
And that’s what it turned out to be. Fantastic, in fact. We had planned to attend a taping of The Price is Right on Sunday morning. It had been canceled, but restaurants were open and I was excited to see the ocean. It had been too long. Although I had never really felt like California was home, the 7 years I had spent in the Bay Area held some really fond memories. (Actually, overall, it was quite a dark time in my life. But that’s a story for later.) The weather was beautiful all weekend. We hiked up in the Hollywood hills, browsed quaint little shops in Venice, and sampled mushroom coffee from a tiny back ally shop. It was interesting and I still have the samples they gave me but am not sure I’m sold on drinking mushroom-flavored coffee!
Muscle Beach was nice, not very crowded. We walked along the sand holding hands and I felt content. What a beautiful life we live. We had dinner at a cute little tapas joint and had the place to ourselves. It was early, though, surely they would fill up later? I left a big tip, feeling concerned about our server’s ability to survive. The rest of the weekend flew by, a happy dream. We ordered take-out, walked her dogs, made love, and talked about our time working together in the restaurant that had shaped our lives in so many ways. It was just about perfect. Monday morning came and I felt a little sad that I would be leaving soon, but so grateful for this newfound yet
longterm connection. My flight was at 5 that evening. I sat on the couch sipping my coffee as she took care of a few work things in her office, and opened my phone for the first time in days.
Bad news was all I could find. The virus seemed to be taking hold, more infections everywhere. Then, there it was: the announcement I had been dreading in the back of my mind this entire blissful weekend.
“Babe?” I said quietly.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“The Colorado governor just called it. He’s shut down restaurants and bars and put the whole state on lockdown.” My heart was a rock, so heavy. I knew at that moment that my life would change, and I was afraid it would change in ways that weren’t good and that neither I nor anyone I knew was prepared to handle. It was a somber end to what had been a weekend full of joy.
Later, after a quick stop at a Bbq restaurant I’d wanted to try, we pulled up to the United drop off and held each other tightly while I assured her we would all be okay. I wasn’t so sure. I spent the flight watching videos of America’s secret barbecue dives, hoping to keep my mind off of what I would walk into the next morning. At Denver Airport parking, I got to my car and tried to start it. The battery had died. As I stood in the remote almost empty parking lot waiting for a jump, the wind started picking up, the temperature plummeted, and suddenly snowflakes were swirling all around me. This was no longer California, and I wasn’t with my new/old friend and lover. I was home, I was alone, it was cold, it was my life, and starting Tuesday morning everything was going to be frighteningly different.