It was supposed to be a celebration.
But instead of pouring shots of Jameson to a full bar of Detroit St. Patrick’s Day Parade revelers early Sunday morning, as he’s done every year for the dozen he’s been running Mudgie’s Deli in Corktown, Greg Mudge was fighting back tears.
His face quivered with emotion as he gathered his skeleton crew around the bar to tell them that come tomorrow there’d be no job for them here for the foreseeable future.
“We talked about it the other day and when I asked if you were scared to be here, everybody raised their hands,” he said, eyes welling. “The government is advising everybody to stay away from each other. At this point in time, to me, if you stay open, you’re doing the wrong thing.”
This should’ve been one of Mudgie’s best days of the year. The annual parade draws close to 100,000 people every year, and the deli, located in the heart of the parade’s staging area on Porter Street, is ground zero for the neighborhood-wide party.
But at 10 a.m. Sunday, no music or hoops and hollers could be heard outside. The street was empty, despite the beautiful sunny day an early spring in Michigan had provided. The parade had been canceled over concerns about spreading the novel coronavirus.
Just eight employees huddled around to listen to Mudge break the hard news to them on a day there would normally be 20 of them.
Mary Kwiatkowski, a server, fidgeted with her hands as she looked at the floor, quiet tears streaming down her cheeks. By the end of the day, she’d be sharing notes with co-worker Briana Roberson on where they could sell their plasma.
“Does anybody in the room want to be here right now?” Mudge asked.
None of the staff’s obsessively sanitized hands went up.
“It is not an easy decision in any way shape or form to come to, but last night I was sitting at home with my face in hands, just worried,” he continued. In fact, he’d had a full-on panic attack.
“I contemplated not even opening today,” he said. “But we have a bread order for today. We have food for today. Should we be doing this today? All those decisions are financial. They’re financial for me. They’re financial for you. But we are going to do today. And if anybody doesn’t want to be here — no harm, no foul. I understand.”
The phone rang. It was 10:06 in the morning and the first customers of the day were outside, waiting for the door to Mudgie’s to open, not knowing that it would be the last time for who knows how long.
With their arrival, Mudge cut his speech short and asked bartender Haakim Walker to pour the staff a shot of Tullamore Dew.
“Thanks for everything,” Mudge said, clinking glasses with his employees. “It’s not over. This is just temporary.”
The team disbanded and began sanitizing their hands and stations again as the day’s first ticket was called.
For the first half-hour of service, Michele Fleming, 37, and Chad Eggers, 46, of Saginaw, had the whole dining room to themselves.
The couple bought a condo in Detroit about a year ago and frequently come down to dine in the city’s independently owned restaurants, Mudgie’s a favorite among them.
“You know how most people go Up North for the weekend?” Fleming said in between bites of soup. “We come down here instead. … We’re here because we trust they’re doing everything they can to protect us. We’re not going out in the big crowds.”
“Washing our hands extra,” Eggers added. “But we’re going to relax at the condo for the rest of the day and limit our exposure.”
Back in the bar area, Frank Murawski, 42, of Warren, was waiting for the rest of his party to arrive while enjoying a cup of coffee, his hands raw and red from washing them so much the last few days.
“This is like the last hurrah, at least for a few weeks,” he said. “We’re going to have some fun today and I think starting tomorrow everybody is going to pack it in.”
Murawski said he hadn’t enacted any social distancing protocols yet, though he was planning on it later in the week despite being unconcerned for his own health.
“My biggest fear would be passing it to someone, or me passing it to someone that then passes it to someone else,” he said. “I saw my 70-year-old dad yesterday and I kissed him right on the Polish face when I saw him, so I guess I must not be that concerned.
“I just feel bad for the small business owners and their workers. That’s another reason we’re here — is to just throw some support to guys we love. I mean, my cousin named her dog Mudgie.”
At 11 a.m., as the bar and dining room slowly but surely began to fill up with people, Mudge announced he’d be closing early. Business was down 40% the previous day, though it was buttressed by a small dinner rush around 7 p.m. — a rush he didn’t want to repeat, not with the risk of spreading the disease.
“I just hired a new manager,” Mudge said. “She’s supposed to start tomorrow and now I have to call her and tell her we’re closing.”
It was a common theme for the day.
Server Megan McCallum, 31, of Detroit, showed up for her shift just as lunch was picking up. After she sanitized her hands at the hostess stand like everyone else, Mudge pulled her aside to break the news. Her pale blue eyes widened.
“This means panic, financially,” she said. “This is the only place I work. I’ve always worked in the service industry, so I don’t think I can find another job.”
McCallum just returned from vacation in New Orleans and this muted parade day would be her last chance to make a few bucks before she’ll have to file for unemployment.
It was bittersweet to think this Sunday would be her last shift for a while, she said, because the previous year she had to be dropped off on parade day it was so busy.
“It’s too quiet,” she said as she readied for her shift. “It’s eerie. There’s going to be a lot of suffering.”
Just then a song came on over the speakers — “4-15-13” by the Dropkick Murphys — its refrain ringing with extra meaning as an unseeable virus ripped its way through American life:
“We’re all just people tryin’ to make it through another day.”
“I definitely owe distributors that I won’t be able to pay,” Mudge said, taking a pause from pouring corned beef-infused Jameson for guests. “Hell, I might have to use my own savings to cover this last payroll. There’s just no money in the coffers after a slow winter. If this had happened in the summer it would’ve been different.”
He struggled with the decision to be open on Sunday. You could see the nervousness in his eyes as he scanned the room, wondering if he’d made the right choice, slightly dumbfounded that — despite everything doctors and politicians were telling us — people were still coming out to drink Guinness and eat corned beef in close proximity to one another. What if the virus was spreading in his place of business right now? The guilt would be too much.
“I’m going to have to tell them no more people in the bar,” he said. “This is ridiculous. I’m uncomfortable….Normally in the restaurant industry we’re welcoming and shaking hands and now it’s like, ‘Don’t touch me.’
“I need to be done with this.”
His nerves didn’t seem to have much effect on the laughing guests in the bar, decked out in their greenest Irish garb.
“It’s a tradition for us to come down here,” said Bob Limback, 53, of Harper Woods, who was sharing a couple pints with his son, Nate, and their friends. “My grandfather helped start the St. Paddy’s Day parade. We even marched in it a couple times.”
The father and son weren’t worried about the effects of contracting the novel coronavirus for their own health, but did say they were concerned about spreading it.
“I could have it right now and not know it,” Bob said, noting that he was taking extra precautions to sanitize his hands regularly but not taking the recommended step of self-isolating.
In fact, they were heading to the Detroit Yacht Club after a few more drinks at Mudgie’s.
Around 12:45, after a couple big groups left, Mudge, his wife, Lisa, and bartender Haakim Walker began meticulously wiping down the bar, chairs, menus, beverage cooler and point-of-sale system.
“Normally it’d be roaring out there right now,” Mudge said as he rinsed wine glasses.
Through the big window in the bar, all you could see was an empty playground, next to an empty church on the outskirts of a mostly empty downtown.
Business at Mudgie’s was down 50% from the same day the previous year.
Manager Scott Palmer, 22, who just started at the deli two weeks ago, was the first to get cut for the day.
“Being young, I don’t really have that much in savings,” he said, contemplating how he would feed his two young children.
Palmer also works as a pizza delivery driver at a Hungry Howie’s in Livonia. Business has been slow there, too, he said, and because he has the second job, he’s not sure he can even claim unemployment. He has no health insurance, though his kids are covered through his wife, a hairdresser who purchases her own insurance.
But her job requires direct person-to-person contact. What if that were forcibly limited?
“It’s devastating,” Palmer said. “But at least we’re all in it together.”
For Tim Runstadler, 52, of Saline, the panic seemed ridiculous. He and his wife had just come from Baffin Brewery in St. Clair Shores.
“There were lots of people in there having a beer and shaking hands intentionally,” Runstadler said. “It was quite lovely.”
The couple were still planning on taking a trip to Aruba in a couple weeks.
“I’m not giving in,” Runstadler said. “I’m an American. I’m going to live my life, and my life is in God’s hands.”
At 3:45, 15 minutes before closing, Mudge dropped a load of fresh bread and buns at the bar for staff members and guests to take home.
“Do you think this panic is all just B.S.?” someone asked him.
“I don’t,” Mudge replied. “I think we all need to do our part for the greater good. I want to think it’s B.S. and a younger me probably would have. But it feels different this time.”
The next day he’d wake up to the news that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would be shutting down all dine-in restaurants in the state anyway.
And suddenly, everyone in the food service industry was in the same boat.
Governor Whitmer’s executive order eliminates on premise dining at all Michigan restaurants until March 30. And while the order still allows restaurants to run as carryout and food delivery operations, many of the state’s almost half-million food-service workers (as estimated by the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association) are now effectively unemployed.
Some restaurants like Mudgie’s have chosen to shutter entirely until the spread of COVID-19 subsides. You can still support them by:
Many other establishments are electing to stay open in a limited capacity. You can find a running list of restaurants offering takeaway and delivery at detroitfoodupdates.com, and even filter results by city.
You can also make a tax-deductible donation to the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Crisis Relief Fund for restaurant workers. The New York-based 501(c)(3) non-profit’s mission is to improve the quality of life for food-service workers, and the new fund promises to:
The RWCF also provides a resource list to help impacted restaurateurs and food-service workers.
It was supposed to be a celebration.