Bartender Forced to Change Environments During COVID-19

Written by on April 24, 2021

Photo caption: Kraig and his son, Phoenix, in 2019.

Upon entering the restaurant he has not set foot in for weeks, Kraig Matthews does his best to keep his distance from his coworkers; he has been following strict directives on how to combat COVID-19 for weeks and that is what he knows to be the best way to run a business during the pandemic. Then a coworker bumps into him. He can feel his senses grow heighted as he stares in disbelief at the person disregarding the social distancing guidelines he has grown so accustomed to. The coworker shrugs it off. Not all businesses can function equally under COVID.

Matthews works as a bartender and server at J. Alexander’s, a Columbus restaurant that was shut down in March 2020 in compliance with COVID-19 guidelines. In the time that J. Alexander’s was closed, Matthews found a job at Amazon to keep him afloat until he could return to work; he thought because of all the experience he had, he could handle anything, but Amazon was uncharted territory.

Now 51 — 50 at the start of the pandemic — Matthews began to feel the strain of his new packaging job within hours of working. His three to four hours shifts consisted of standing in the same spot with a half hour break in between. To stand in the same spot was strenuous on his back and his knees, and to have no human contact was grueling on his mind. To amend the former, Matthews would try and stretch when work slowed down — he would even practice his kicks from Karate classes he took as a kid to stretch out his hamstrings and keep his knees and ankles in motion. To amend the latter, he had to entertain himself, which often served difficult due to Amazon’s strict following of social distancing guidelines.

“Working in a restaurant, there’s a huge social component. And if you have a certain personality, it does go hand in hand with what a restaurant job offers,” Matthews says. “I’m by no means extroverted, but I’m by no means introverted. But I do like 30 seconds of real contact with people, eye contact, smiles, human interaction. And going from that to a 10 to 11 hour shift where there is no human interaction and no stimulation … I definitely missed the day-to-day joy that the restaurant life gives me that Amazon did not offer me, nor could they the way it’s set up.”

When J. Alexander’s closed initially, Matthews was not as concerned about finances as he was about keeping busy, and after seeing the news of the pandemic Sunday, he applied online Monday, was invited for a drug test and screening Thursday and given his work schedule immediately following. He worked at Amazon for nearly 50 hours a week for the next seven weeks.

Per his partner’s request, Kraig Matthews enters his home through the garage after returning from work. After shutting the large door behind him, he takes off his shirt, then pants, then the rest, and piles it on the floor of the garage. After announcing he is home, he quickly marches upstairs and jumps in the shower, scrubbing a few times over. After drying off, Matthews returns to the garage and collects his dirty clothes in a plastic bag which he then takes to the washing machine to be washed on “screaming hot.”

“But of course, that’s part of it that everybody has a different viewpoint. Some people think it’s a hoax. Other people take it to the point of seriousness that they’re afraid to go out of their house and everywhere in between. So for me, I never really got frustrated, I just accepted that,” he says.“And not to mention that my significant other is on the spectrum of full compliance … [I would do that] just to make sure that she felt safe because that was her interpretation or rhythm of life, to how to live with the virus.”

When the pandemic began, J. Alexander’s sales dropped from $80,000 to $12,000 a week. The owners decided they were going backward to a point where it would be difficult to see a future for the restaurant if they remained open. Matthews’ income never dipped too far under, he says. At Amazon he made about 80% of what he was making at J. Alexander’s, but he was working 50 hours a week instead of 35. 

One in four jobs lost in the United States during April 2020 were jobs in the restaurant industry according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — not including those not on payroll like undocumented workers. For many, the weight of the stressors of the pandemic led to unemployment applications and weeks of government reliance. Matthews’ work ethic pushed him to find a temporary job during the pandemic, which doubled as financial support for his family and a good example for his son.

“I’ve never taken unemployment, so I didn’t know what to do, but I’m sure I would have figured it out. There’s work out there and if there’s an open position, there’s no reason for you to take unemployment, you just have to take one of these other positions. It may not be what you want, but that’s where you are currently,” he says. “It is probably a father raising a kid that way because if my son was that way, I probably would have said, ‘Oh, you lost your job [because] COVID shut down your business? Go find another job that has a business open.’”

Matthews’ son Phoenix says Kraig’s work ethic is unique and is what kept him in good shape financially when many businesses went under in 2020. While he described his father as laid back and easy to get along with, he also described him as someone who appreciates hard work and will hold co workers accountable for mistakes. His dad is also someone who needs to remain busy in order to feel successful, which played into Matthews’ need to remain employed during the period of uncertainty.

Kraig Matthews found his way back to J. Alexander’s after his seven weeks in a much stricter, duller environment. He is learning to maneuver the everchanging safety protocols and rekindling relationships with co workers and customers from a distance. The difficulties of the pandemic were diminished due to his unmatched work ethic. To this day he continues to make sure he and his family remain safe, even as vaccines are distributed.

“As soon as I see a bottle [of hand sanitizer], it’s almost reflex now. It’s so omnipresent in what I do. When I’m touching something, I don’t know if the last person picked their nose and put their hand there or something like that, anything that could transfer the virus if somebody was a carrier,” he says. “I’m aware and I try to do everything that I’ve been encouraged to do or directed to do to keep myself safe and the people around me safe. I certainly know it’s not a 100% thing, but I can definitely do everything I can to get it as close to 100% as possible.”


Zach Shepherd contributed to this story.

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