Washington state was the initial “epicenter” of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. We followed four women with ties to the service industry, which struggled long before stay-at-home orders became commonplace, in Seattle. We documented their stories by calling them every few weeks, from early April to early June.
In early January, Victoria Fox temporarily said goodbye to Westward, the waterfront restaurant in Seattle where she’d been an assistant general manager. Fox planned to return in a few months after the restaurant group, Sea Creatures, finished renovating the nautical-themed eatery.
At almost eight months pregnant, Fox, 30, still needed to work more hours to qualify for paid family leave in Washington state and keep her health insurance coverage. She picked up two part-time hosting gigs at other Sea Creatures restaurants and continued doing what she loved: Being around people all day in an environment that felt like home.
But during one of her shifts, Fox started “seeing stars, like in a cartoon.” On the phone, a nurse instructed her to sit in a quiet room for an hour. When nothing changed, she went to a medical center with her husband, Ben. A provider determined that Fox had high blood pressure. They wanted to induce her in a week, at her 37th week of pregnancy.
Fox squeezed in two more shifts ahead of Valentine’s Day — a “logistical nightmare” — put in her notice and went to the hospital on Feb. 16. Her birth experience was disorganized and frustrating, but on Feb. 18 at 12:12 p.m., “we had Rèmi. It was awful, hard and terrible, but it was pretty cool when they plopped him on my chest. He was just this little alien looking at you.”
The first-time mother noticed covid-19 posters scattered throughout the hospital, but no one brought up the virus. The notices gave instructions that have since changed: If you’ve recently traveled to Wuhan, China, are experiencing a cough or shortness of breath and/or have a fever, let a health care worker know.
Fox, along with a majority of the United States, wasn’t particularly concerned. She took her newborn home, began adjusting to life as a parent, and applied for paid family leave. Her husband, who only had a few days off after Rèmi’s birth, resumed working 65 to 70 hours a week at two bars.
On Feb. 29, officials announced the first recognized covid-19 death in Washington state and the U.S. As the number of confirmed cases and deaths increased, Seattle restaurants saw fewer patrons. By the time Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) ordered restaurants and bars to shut down in mid-March, Sea Creatures had already temporarily closed certain locations. Since mid-February, the restaurant group has laid off around 225 employees. Fox officially lost her job on March 16.
She watched the crisis unfold from home as her son grew without the support system she’d imagined. Her mom was still a plane ride away in Michigan. Fearing that they would unknowingly transmit the virus to the baby, local family members weren’t able to offer much in-person relief.
To avoid living alone during the stay-at-home order, Fox’s best friend ended up moving in. Although Fox is grateful to have the support, she’s struggled with the fact that her son’s “life is going by, and no one gets to really enjoy it.”
“The restaurant family is a big deal for my husband and I,” she said. “Our wedding had more friends from restaurants than family. It’s hard that everyone’s been so excited for me to finally give birth. It feels like I've been pregnant forever, but no one’s gotten to see him.”
As the restaurant industry crumbled, Fox grew increasingly concerned about money. The couple used savings and credit cards to pay for rent, utilities, car payments, groceries and other expenses.
The state had yet to process Fox’s paid family leave application. This year, Washington joined a handful of states that currently offer such leave. Overwhelmed with the number of applicants, the state Employment Security Department warned that processing times could be as long as 10 weeks.
Since her husband could only collect unemployment for one of his part-time jobs, their income dropped significantly: “We’re basically getting $400 a week for three people to live off,” she said. “That doesn’t add up.”
Every once in a while, the couple would pick up dinner from Salare, a restaurant that provided approximately 14,000 free meals to Seattle’s service industry workers through the Lee Initiative, Maker’s Mark and community donations. Sometimes, friends from the industry would drop off food: “Everyone kind of looks out for us,” Fox said. “We’re all in the same family.”
By late April, Fox started to feel better about their finances. Her husband’s unemployment checks grew thanks to the federal Cares Act, which will temporarily provide eligible workers an additional $600 weekly.
“It’s nice to feel like I can pay my rent,” Fox said. “It was really, really tight. We were going to have just enough for rent and nothing else.”
On good days, Fox finds herself in the kitchen preparing all-day meals and planning future “family dishes” with her husband. The three roommates spend extra time working with Rèmi on different developmental milestones, something they wouldn’t have had much time to do if they had jobs. But Fox occasionally wakes up feeling like she has no security blanket.
“I’ve always liked the fact that the [service] industry is very malleable. There is always an opportunity,” she said. “The fact that ability is gone is a little scary. When this is over, they speculate that a huge percentage of restaurants are just not going to be there.”
“It’s really hitting a lot of privileged people, myself included, that things are out of your control and you can literally get the coronavirus and become very, very sick or die,” Fox continued, “and it has nothing to do with any choices that you’ve made.”
As Rèmi turned 11-weeks-old in May, the state approved Fox’s paid family leave application. She enjoyed a Mother’s Day spread with her favorite treats: poke, steak, parfaits and Japanese coffee. The rest of the month brought more uncertainties: Pre-pandemic, she and her husband agreed that he would be the primary caregiver. Would they need to reevaluate their plan if she didn’t get her job back? If Seattle allowed restaurants to reopen, would patrons willingly follow guidelines, such as wearing masks and staying six feet apart?
Toward the end of May, Fox experienced a hint of clarity. Sea Creatures reached out: They were preparing to reopen Westward, and they wanted to hire her back as an hourly employee. It will be less money than before, but Fox is okay with that for now. On June 1, she started working about 30 hours a week, while Ben stays home with Rèmi.
“I did not think I would be that bummed about missing Rèmi,” Fox said. “I was excited to go back into civilization. But I’ve been pretty into calling all the time and wanting to video chat with him.”
“I really like you, dude,” she said to her cooing son.
Feb. 18: Victoria Fox gives birth to her first child, Rèmi
Feb. 22: Fox applies for Washington state Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML)
March 15: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) calls for bars and restaurants to cease in-person dining; many transition to takeout, curbside pickup or close entirely
March 16: Fox gets laid off from Sea Creatures, a restaurant group in Seattle; her husband also gets laid off from two part-time bartender jobs and applies for unemployment
March 27: Congress passes the Cares Act, expanding unemployment
May 3: PMFL approves Fox’s application; she receives back pay
June 1: Fox begins working a part-time, hourly position at Westward
June 5: King County, Wash., allows restaurants to offer indoor dining at 25 percent capacity and outdoor dining at 50 percent capacity