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‘I feel like I’m always on edge’: For hospitality workers, COVID-19 hasn’t just ravaged their industry, but also their mental health

Watching their livelihoods crumble and scared of getting sick, many are fighting despair and struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Joe Cooke, a chef at the Publick House, posed for a portrait inside the restaurant.
Joe Cooke, a chef at the Publick House, posed for a portrait inside the restaurant.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Walter Janulewicz was a gifted gardener. He loved flowers. A 29-year concierge at the Four Seasons Hotel, he delighted in meeting guests who loved them, too, and relished directing them to the Arnold Arboretum — everyone from Elton John to Texan tourists. He carried a notebook cataloging guests’ favorite restaurants, birthdays, and milestones, always ready with just the right recommendation.

When COVID-19 hit and the visitors stopped coming, his work dried up. At loose ends, the 62-year-old became isolated. He missed the daily social interaction. He missed being helpful. Earlier this month, he died by suicide.

“This is an industry where you help people. You please people. It gives great satisfaction to fill that need — and to feel needed,” said Greater Boston Concierge Association founder Amy Finsilver, Janulewicz’s longtime colleague and friend.

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“He was a very private, prideful person. He had close friends trying to get him help. We all have good and bad days, but he got to a point where he was very sad and lonely. Where was the light at the end of the tunnel?” she asked.

Maintaining mental health in the restaurant industry has always been a fragile proposition: low pay, long hours, lots of pressure. But the pandemic has upped the ante — especially so in Greater Boston.

Local hotels had the largest declines in occupancy, average daily rate, and revenue per available room — the three major metrics of hotel performance — of any major metropolitan area in the country this year, according to the hospitality data company STR.

Shauna Reyburn, co-owner of Viale restaurant arranged chairs before the start of service.
Shauna Reyburn, co-owner of Viale restaurant arranged chairs before the start of service. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Meanwhile, more than 110,000 restaurants have closed permanently or long-term across the country. Locally, 3,400 restaurants have gone out of business during the pandemic.

The financial toll on the industry is well-chronicled, and its bleak decay is visible in deserted dining rooms, vacant hotel lobbies, and slush-covered patios. But mental health is a private battle, waged at home. There are no government bailouts for peace of mind; no future gift cards for therapy. Despair doesn’t hibernate.

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And so business owners who have staked their savings and identities on a dream are watching it fade, a loss even more poignant during what should be the busiest time of year. Workers have been laid off or furloughed, desperate for security and income. Still others continue to go to work, all while terrified of catching COVID-19.

“I feel like I’m always on edge. It’s not like you’re just going to work — it’s like you’re going out into a battle of the walking dead. It’s a little crazy,” said Teresa Maynard, 41, owner of Dorchester’s Sweet Teez Bakery.

She has reason to fear: She caught COVID-19 earlier this year, spiking a fever of 104.

“It was literally the scariest thing ever. I have never been so afraid I would die. I couldn’t breathe. I would get up to go to the bathroom and feel like I ran a marathon. I was exhausted. Fatigued. Beat-up,” she said.

Now back at work delivering baked goods, she’s torn between making money and protecting herself and her family.

“When I go to deliver a cake and someone comes out without a mask, you look at them like, ‘You’re putting me in danger — not only yourself.’ Was that cake order worth it? It’s terrifying,’” she said.

Owners of Viale, Shauna Reyburn and husband Greg Reeves, posed for a portrait inside their restaurant.
Owners of Viale, Shauna Reyburn and husband Greg Reeves, posed for a portrait inside their restaurant. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Daniel Tebo, 42, a floor manager and server at Vee Vee in Jamaica Plain, has always suffered from health anxiety. A faithful visitor to WebMd.com, often attuned to a heartbeat flutter or a mysterious stomach pain, the pandemic threw his anxiety into overdrive. He stayed indoors from March until June, quarantining with his partner on a family farm in Rhode Island. He returned to work in the summer, processing takeout orders, where he felt secluded enough. One day, though, he pitched in for a server who didn’t show up, and he overheard a guest mention a COVID outbreak at their workplace. It sent his anxiety spiraling once again.

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“I thought, ‘What have I done? Should I count the clock down? Should I quarantine?’” he said. Now he’s back to bagging takeout orders. He needs the work; his other jobs, running estate sales and working at a record shop, no longer exist. He maintains a twice-daily dose of Clonazepam, an anti-anxiety drug.

Still, “I probably take my temperature a dozen times daily,” he said.

Even for those who don’t suffer from health anxiety, “it’s become a very do-or-die mentality, which is the freakiest part for me. It’s always been a battle to make our margins, but now it’s overwhelming,” said Joseph Cooke, 31, executive chef at Brookline’s Publick House.

He worries for his co-workers, many of whom have worked two jobs to get by. These days, he doesn’t have the hours to give them.

“Everything they work for is completely blown apart,” he said. “It is painful. The pressure is on me is to provide for the restaurant and myself. How can I provide for my staff?” he asked. “What safety net is there for these people?”

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He often meets workers at the kitchen door with care packages. He hasn’t had time to seek therapy, and he’s reluctant to vent to his colleagues.

“I can’t use my restaurant as a sounding-off board. They are still going through the same thing. So you eat the pain,” he said.

Shauna Reyburn, co-owner of Viale restaurant, inflated balloons to celebrate the birthday of a regular before the start of service.
Shauna Reyburn, co-owner of Viale restaurant, inflated balloons to celebrate the birthday of a regular before the start of service. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Sara Brande from Cambridge’s Yume Ga Arukara has begun suffering intense panic attacks. As the restaurant’s only front-of-house worker and marketer, they feel personally responsible for the restaurant’s success.

“Every day, I would worry that I wasn’t working hard enough. If I don’t do my job well, [customers] won’t want to order our food, because of me,” they said.

They have yet to find a therapist.

Molly Kivi, 30 is furloughed from Benedetto, an upscale Italian restaurant in Harvard Square. She has upped her dose of Prozac from 10mg to 20mg, but she’s worried her health insurance will run out.

“The fact we’re not being taken care of is so heartbreaking. It hasn’t helped my depression,” she said. “What about my medicine? My therapy?”

Laid off three times since March, Black Lamb bartender Esther Awdykowyz, 30, said she feels like a “yo-yo controlled by a faceless con artist,” at the mercy of ongoing hibernations, closures, and call-backs for other jobs.

She came to Boston from Denver in 2016 to work for Eastern Standard in Kenmore Square — currently closed —where she met her boyfriend and found a strong community of local friends. She’s looking for other jobs now but can’t find much, even though she’s willing to work for less than half of what she made in restaurants. Liquor stores and wine shops aren’t calling her back.

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“You’re told, ‘All you know how to do is make drinks.’ You get pigeonholed,’” she said.

Shauna Reyburn, 42, who runs Central Square’s Viale, struggled with a sensation of aimlessness as her business dwindled.

“I would literally just lay in bed all day and try to think of a reason to get up. What is my purpose? I felt empty. I have worked in the business for 20 years, and my whole life got flipped outside down,” she said.

Lindsay Tierney, 37, marked seven years of sobriety in December. She opened Nan’s Market in Stow on Nov. 30 under a cloud of uncertainty and stress. In the past, she’d cope by drinking.

Now she takes Celexa, an antidepressant. (Xanax, a faster-acting drug, worked temporarily for her anxiety, but she needed something longer term that wouldn’t make her sleepy.) She also tries to get outside daily for a walk. Mostly, as with alcoholism, she tries to cope one day at a time.

“We’re all grieving right now, grieving the way our lives were. It’s tricky to fully wrap your mind around it. The stages of grief are what a lot of people process: denial, anger, bargaining — what if I keep my doors open for another couple weeks? Will it make an impact?” she asked.

“I try not to ruminate and think too deeply about the past and try not to predict the future. I live in the now,” she said.

That’s hard when you’re always waiting for the axe to fall, though.

“I feel like this entire industry is walking around with this anxiety, waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said Maren Keyt, 42, a bartender at the Oak Long Bar + Kitchen at the Fairmont Copley Plaza. She hasn’t worked since March.

“The anxiety is real. The depression is real. I’m not sleeping like I normally would. I get up a couple times a night. I have stress dreams. It’s just a lot to manage and for such a long time,” Keyt said.

She can’t find a therapist; nobody has called her back. Meanwhile, her unemployment benefits have been delayed due to ongoing state fraud investigations. A new $668 million statewide relief program for small businesses is cold comfort.

“In a lot of ways, we’re fortunate to live in Massachusetts. I think that they are trying to do everything as science-driven as possible — but it’s hard to be thankful. It’s such a drop in the bucket. It’s so sad to see our industry that has been hit so hard be left dangling in the wind,” she said, her voice breaking.

As it waits for better days to come, the Greater Boston Concierge Association is doing what it can to help — donating to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in the name of Walter Janulewicz.

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Are you or someone you know in trouble? Or feeling alone? You’re not alone.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

Crisis Text Line: www.crisistextline.org

Chefs With Issues: facebook.com/groups/chefswithissues/

National Alliance on Mental Illness: www.nami.org

A Balanced Glass: www.abalancedglass.com


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.