The World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020 and here we are, one year later.
The past year has delivered immense loss and interruption, leading to a crucial realization that what we used to call “normal” desperately needs to be redefined. While navigating the past year’s painful challenges, one thing provided me comfort and strength: relatable stories.
Sameena Azhar, Ph.D., LCSW, MPH, states that “sharing stories is an age-old tradition and serves to recount memories, share lessons, and define identity. In the provision of mental health services, we often call this form of storytelling: narrative therapy. Creating and recreating a narrative can have therapeutic benefits in being able to process and heal trauma.” She adds that “storytelling can also be a powerful means of building community by allowing us the space…to share our humanity.” She says this may be beneficial to “bring the hospitality community together to impart the lessons learned through the tribulations of the stay-at-home orders.”
Two dedicated hospitality workers contribute to our industry’s storytelling: Elena S. Davila, General Manager of Uptown Bourbon and Penny Jo’s, and Sook Sheena Okay, a New York City bartender. Below, they share their thoughts and ideas regarding their work during this year-long pandemic we continue to fight.*
“What has been the most challenging part of working in the pandemic environment?”
Davila: Balancing the physical and mental health and safety of staff and community while maintaining a stable business with ever-evolving regulations. Most of our staff and guests live and work in the shadow of NY Presbyterian Hospital, where the impact on human life by COVID-19 was inescapable. Keeping up with the City and State regulations continues to be frustrating. Fortunately, as a young teen, I developed an odd liking to watching local government proceedings on the local access channel, which turned out to have served me well during the past year.
Okay: Navigating new systems while regulating everyone for safety. Most restaurant workers I know are experienced with multitasking and juggling different roles, but this has been exceptional. The hours are double, the money has been significantly marginalized, the elements have been brutal…you just never know what you will get.
“What is one thing the pandemic environment has taught you?”
Davila: We are nothing without community. Without the bar’s daily interactions, it was easy to feel disconnected from the people around me.
Okay: How incredible I am! Meaning, I cannot believe I ever had any self-doubt, particularly compared to those in government who are supposed to be on the ground with us. The gloat is also to say that it really comes down to you and those in your community. We must take care of each other. I am incredibly emboldened by this experience.
“What have you done to help yourself cope through all of the changes brought on by the pandemic?”
Davila: Long walks both on my tried-and-true routes and “new to me” parts of Manhattan have felt luxurious in their leisure, allowing ideas to spill from my mind as if they had been unlocked by the steps of my feet. I’ve also enjoyed immersing myself in comforting nostalgia by recreating smells and tastes in my kitchen and bar that I associate with good memories. An unexpected bright note for me was this social upheaval changing how we communicate, making me feel much closer to my geographically distant family.
Okay: A part of my practice at the beginning of this pandemic to cope, and my general modus operandi in this thing called life, is check-ins; a simple offering letting people know I am here. Asking, “how are you feeling today?” and “did you eat today?” Also, I cry a lot: on the train, on the street corner, with friends, with strangers… being honest, vulnerable, and kind in the same fever of wanting to scream out, is beneficial. We all cope differently. There’s room for everything.
“What is a piece of advice you would give to your hospitality peers who are currently struggling?”
Davila: Find something that excites you and revel in it.
Okay: Reach out to this huge community of people who care. I promise you; you are not alone. And if you have been a culprit of dysfunction or harm yourself, admit to it, apologize, and vow to change. You can change. You are doing great. This has been incredibly difficult.
“What is one thing you wish you could tell your customers during this time?”
Davila: Please read the rules and restrictions that apply to dining before going out. We pride ourselves on creating a safe and fun space and are thrilled you choose us to enjoy your time. Interrupting the good time to correct behavior is not fun for anyone.
Okay: I want to tell customers now, and always, to check themselves: Remember that there is another human on the other end of the interaction, trying to survive, just like you. Follow the rules and ask if you are unsure. We are risking our lives for your good time. Have that good time, but reciprocate.
And a final note from Azhar: “We can grow from hearing other’s experiences as we learn to better overcome future challenges in our own lives.” Let us strive to continue communicating stories, voicing our concerns, and building community to reinforce our industry’s strength. You never know who your narrative may touch.
Do you have a story related to the pandemic you would like to share? Please write it in the comments below to continue this vital conversation.
*Submissions have been edited for length and clarity.
Elena S. Davila (Chilled 100 Member): Elena S. Davila was born and raised in Miami, Florida where she made an early career change leaving the corporate world for the hospitality business over a decade ago. After years behind the bar and in leadership roles at venues in and around downtown Miami in 2015, she moved to New York City to help open and run Uptown Bourbon. The team went on to open Penny Jo’s in Washington Heights in 2019. A History major in college and local history enthusiast, Elena deploys tales from the past to pepper her speech and her menus to connect people across bars as well as time.
Sook Sheena Okay: Sheena was born and raised in Brooklyn and bartends in the New York City neighborhoods of SoHo and Williamsburg. She has worked in the hospitality industry for over 15 years. She continues to reside in Brooklyn where she protests, studies, and fights for the causes she cares for alongside her community.
Sameena Azhar, Ph.D., LCSW, MPH: Sameena Azhar’s clinical and research interests are focused on the intersections of sex work, gender nonconformity, addiction, and HIV in South Asia. She draws inspiration from postcolonial feminist writers and social activists. She has worked for several years in both social policy and social work practice, as a Behavioral Intervention Trainer for the California Department of Public Health and as a Clinical Social Worker for Ward 86, the HIV clinic at San Francisco General Hospital. Sameena plays jazz piano and grows orchids. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Megan Marshall: Megan bartends in New York City at Ama Raw Bar in the East Village. She is the winner of Old Forester’s NYC Battle of the Boroughs 2020, a Week One Semi-finalist in Chilled Magazine’s Toast to the Service Industry, runner up in ShakeStir’s Rossville Union Rye Cocktail Competition, a BarSmarts graduate, a USBG member, and current Master of Social Work student at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service.