The Coronavirus in Nashville.
Or, why all my friends and I are out of work.
Written (mostly) on Tuesday, March 17th.
For the past two years,
I’ve been balancing full time grad school and part time work. For the last 8 or so months, I’ve been lucky enough to work at the downtown location of Frothy Monkey, a coffeeshop/restaurant/bar here in Nashville.
Two weeks ago, we joked at work about how the coronavirus was a funny meme. Last week, we started carrying hand sanitizer with us to work. This past weekend, we went several hours in a shift without anyone coming into the store. A few days ago, customers started tipping 10$ on bottles of water, or 30$ on a meal.
Today, I got a call from the GM explaining that the store was only making enough money to pay a handful of the staff while remaining profitable. As such, they were going to have to cut the front of house schedule to just those with management training. I’m not a manager, and so for the foreseeable future, I won’t have work.
To be clear,
Frothy isn’t firing anyone, or laying anyone off. I have no ill will towards anyone there, and if anything, the GM there has been nothing but concerned with the well-being of the people she’s having to give this news too. Whenever the exponential growth of the coronavirus calms down, and social distancing precautions start to relax, and business comes back, I’ll have a job at Frothy, and will be happy to return.
However, it is Tuesday, March 17th. On the last day of the month, I’ve got to pay rent.
I got that call from the GM at 5:20pm. At 5:30, one of my best friends and coworkers showed up at my place, just before receiving the same call from our GM himself. At 5:40, a number of friends came over, and out of the seven people I hung out with that evening, four of us were service industry workers. The other three are involved in music, and almost all of us are almost completely out of work.
As a city, Nashville subsists off of tourism, food & drink, and music (usually all at the same time).
On a day to day level, and even a yearly level, those industries have a pretty high level of volatility. Pay mostly consists of tips, and on a good day, that pay is great. On a bad day, not so much. On top of that, the summers are always better than the winters, and even someone who is good at math might struggle to average the tips into an actual prediction of an hourly income.
Six months ago, I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, Antifragile.
In his book, Taleb argues that industries like food & drink, music, tourism, or even taxi driving all have short term, very obvious volatility. However, he argues that the very nature of those businesses also mean they have long-term stability, and an ability to respond and even grow in the midst of chaotic circumstances.
The last time we saw this much change in the economy was the 2008 financial crisis, and during that time, businesses like tourism, food & drink, and events certainly took hits. However, it was along the lines of going through a really slow season, which people in those industries already expect on a regular basis.
Taleb has made a career out of analyzing risk,
particularly what he calls “Black Swan” events. There are catastrophes that exceed the scale and disruption of anything previously on record, and as such, overwhelm any coping measures that might be in place.
The 2008 financial crisis is one example, with another being the Fukushima reactor meltdown in 2011. In that case, there was an earthquake off the shore of a nuclear plant, which automatically triggered a lengthy shutdown process, during which backup generators would keep the reactors stable.
The facility also had a nearly thirty-foot-tall seawall to keep the plant insulated from tsunami’s, on top of the plant itself being built on a bank forty-five feet above sea level. Immediately after the earthquake, everything at the plant was going according to plan. However, no one had ever seen or planned for a nearly fifty foot tsunami, which swept over the seawall, flooded the basements of the plant, and knocked out the backup generators.
Before that event,
the highest recorded tsunami in that area was much smaller than what the plant was hit with that day. A thirty foot seawall is quite a significant piece of construction work, and it would have seemed absurd to suggest that maybe the plant could be vulnerable to flooding. After the fact, it seems absurd that the seawall hadn’t been built higher in the first place.
We are in the midst of another “black swan” level event, and one that will have significant repercussions for literally years to come.
The best epidemiologists on the planet predict that even if we maintain social distancing, keep schools shutdown, and require quarantining of all members of households with one member infected, emergency rooms will still end up being overwhelmed multiple times over, especially as the infection curve peaks sometime this summer.
It’s abundantly clear that we have to take all of those precautions. Anything less will literally cost lives, with a worst case scenario looking at 2.2 million dead in the United States alone. However, we must seek to mitigate harm in terms of not only lives lost to sickness, but in terms of economic well being.
Nashville is like an engine with a supercharger attached.
Tourism brings in absurd amounts of money and new people moving here, which brings new businesses, and then everyone who does live here gets their paycheck and reinvests it in the city.
That’s fueled a tremendous amount of growth over the past six years, and yet, this week, somebody shut down the line from the gas tank to the engine, and now the whole system seems to be slowly spinning down.
For the foreseeable future, businesses like Frothy will either have to shut down or run off a skeleton crew that still barely turns a profit. That means my friends and I will likely be out of work for the foreseeable future.
Even after businesses reopen and service industry people can get back to work, it could take months for fear of crowds to wear off, and tips to return to their pre-coronavirus levels.
That means months until my friends and those like us start spending money again, which means months until that engine starts to spin up. There’s a chance that whole portions of the city of Nashville never reach the speed they had before the epidemic.
The sum of those fears come down to one thing. For me, for my friends, and for everyone else in industries affected by the Coronavirus; what do we do when we have to pay rent next?
There are no easy answers. To promise them would be cheap, especially given that Nashville isn’t even one of the cities hit the hardest by this event so far. But, I still find myself wanting to point in one direction.
After two days processing my lack of work, I find myself oddly at peace.
You see, you wouldn’t ask a chameleon to predict the color of the tree it’ll be on the next time a predator rolls around. It doesn’t need to know in advance; all a chameleon has to do is hide effectively when a predator does show up. In the same way, human beings are wired to deal with immediate threats, not predict the kinds of danger we could face in the future.
We are far better at coping with our present circumstances than we are at preparing for our future ones. That’s why “black swan” events sneak up on human beings in the first place. However, that also means human beings are at their best in these kinds of crisis situations, and more than that, human communities tend to take better care of their most vulnerable members during the most extreme circumstances.
Admittedly, that’s not a direct solution to the tangible problems of paying for rent, and food, and gas, but
my hope is that as this crisis progresses, people do what they’re meant to do — band together in the name of both “flattening the curve” of virus spread and ensuring that no one misses a rent payment as a result of it.
For one person, that looked like footing the bill for a $1000 tab at Dino’s, a bar in east Nashville, so that anyone in the service industry could get a hot, free meal on Tuesday evening.
On top of that, that person tipped 20% on the whole tab, and I’m sure that every single person who got a free meal gave cash tips on whatever they ordered.
In the last two days, I’ve had countless people offer to help me out with food or rent or whatever I need, which is tremendously humbling. I will be more than fine through this crisis, even if it will be stressful.
However, not everyone has the social safety net that I do, and I think we all need to do as much as we can to offer that support to others.
The reality is we’re all going to get tired of our own cooking if this quarantine thing keeps up, and so we might as well order food to-go from any businesses staying open, and tip well when we do. (Shout-out Frothy Monkey’s brand new online ordering)
More than that, a collection of restaurants in Tennessee is petitioning the governor for immediate aid to the hospitality industry. They’re asking for compensation for furloughed workers such as myself, rent and loan abatement, or even a cash stimulus. It would mean the world if you would share their stuff on social media, or even call the governor’s office yourself.
Finally, I’m terrible at accepting help.
Rather than just get a free meal here or there, or a check from the government, I’d love to actually earn my own keep. My next few days will be spent looking for anywhere that I can actually make that happen, and I know I won’t be alone in that.
So, if you’re in an industry that is still working, or know of someone who is, let them know that there are people out of a job who would love some work to do. I, particularly, am looking for part-time or freelance jobs that involve writing or editing. You can find my resume here, check out the rest of my blog through the link at the top, or consider the piece you just read indicative of my abilities.
Years from now,
children will read about the Coronavirus epidemic of 2020 in history class, just as I read about the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. I have no doubt we’ll give those children something to be proud of.
“In our age, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.” — Dag Hammarskjold.