OAKLAND, Calif. — Cold beer flowed, soul music played and regulars lined the redwood bar to order tequila shots and tater tots. No one wore masks, many hugged, and the staff passed a joint out front.
A scene from a bygone era, it was March 16, the final night before the nation’s first effective coronavirus lockdown. Hours earlier, officials across the San Francisco Bay Area had ordered most businesses to close at midnight for at least three weeks. In response, the staff of the Hatch, a cozy locals’ bar in downtown Oakland, opened its doors to bring people together for one last night of drinks — and pay.
Robin Easterbrook, the Hatch’s tattooed manager, served beers and whiskey to a municipal-bonds trader and a fried-chicken cook, two stools apart.
“We’re six years running, so hopefully something like this doesn’t wipe us out,” she said from behind the bar, her dyed orange-and-pink hair peeking out from a baseball cap. “It’s frustrating, because I don’t have all the answers to give to our team, other than my word that we’re going to do our best to make sure that you get taken care of.”
Behind a curtain, Santos, a 56-year-old Guatemalan immigrant, pressed burgers to the grill. He and his six children in the Bay Area had all received word that day that they no longer had jobs. He planned to return to the three-bedroom house on the outskirts of Oakland that he shared with 11 family members and stay put. “I want to respect the law,” he said in Spanish. “But my worry is my rent, food.” The Hatch’s other cook, Leonardo Garcia, fried fresh tortillas into chips and packed meat into the freezer for the bar’s sudden hibernation.
Shelter-in-place orders in the United States and beyond have forced millions of businesses to close, some for good. Amid that loss, there are countless stories of the places that people loved and that made their communities special — like my local watering hole, the Hatch.
It’s a laid-back melting pot of a bar, where the art is abundant and the cans of Tecate are $3. The night before the lockdown, I persuaded the staff to share their finances and lives over the next three months.
On that Monday night, Kenny Bloom, a bartender, was fairly zen. “Am I worried? Of course I’m worried. Is it the end of the world, though? No,” he said. “If society crashes, whatever. We’ll rebuild it.” Antoine Towers, the bouncer, was more fatalistic. He forecast riots. “Three weeks of not making any money?” he said, standing outside the bar. “People are going to do what they have to do.”
Not all of the bar’s 17 employees were there for the impromptu farewell party. Abel Oleson, another bartender, had served drinks that afternoon but was now quarantined inside his home, worried about his asthma and nearly empty bank account. Maria, an undocumented immigrant who cleaned the Hatch each morning, was already in bed, set to awake around dawn for a final scrubbing of the floors.
Eventually, the owner entered. Wearing a black beanie over his dreadlocks, Louwenda Kachingwe, known to everyone as Pancho, looked relaxed as he greeted customers and employees with a broad smile. Then he started to do some math. The rent was $6,200, and two days earlier, he had agreed to take on the $2,600 lease next door for a long-planned sister bar.
“I know,” he said. “It’s a problem.” He burst out in nervous laughter.
“Are we laughing, or are we crying?” Ms. Easterbrook asked.
“That’s the crying laugh,” he replied.
On a scale of one to 10, Mr. Kachingwe said, his anxiety about the bar’s future was a nine. “Three weeks is doable. But what I’ve been told is, it’s probably realistically eight weeks,” he said. “If it’s eight weeks, then I’m just like: How does anyone survive that?”
‘Closed mouths don’t get fed’
The Hatch used to be a Hawaiian barbecue joint with orange carpets. “It was nasty,” Mr. Kachingwe said. He leased it anyway, tore out the carpets and built wooden tables and benches with some friends.
The Hatch opened in November 2014, a side-street hideaway just off Oakland’s main drag. It offered a single India pale ale and a bacon-wrapped hot dog. (Both are still on the menu.) Customers drank out of red Solo cups and sat on chairs borrowed from a restaurant down the street. Mr. Kachingwe slept on a couch upstairs.
Mr. Kachingwe, 40, was used to risks. His childhood took him from Chegutu, a village in Zimbabwe without electricity, to Coralville, Iowa, where his stepfather had gotten a job as a professor when he was 10. Fifteen years later, he moved to San Francisco and ended up managing a popular Senegalese spot known for its dance floor. (The owner promoted him because he didn’t drink.) Eventually he thought owning his own place would give him more time to play guitar and write screenplays (wrong), so he looked to Oakland.
“The first goal was completely selfish,” he said. “And then immediately, you realize it has nothing to do with you.”
The Hatch grew into a community hub. The narrow two-story bar, jacketed in reclaimed fence boards and local art, became a hangout for the city’s artists, musicians and writers, as well as waiters, bartenders and baristas. Upstairs were free comedy and rap shows, and Mr. Kachingwe hung a bedsheet to project obscure movies. The success helped drive sales from about $250,000 in its first year to more than $700,000 in 2019.
Now — on March 17, a Tuesday — Mr. Kachingwe and Ms. Easterbrook were packing up the booze and boarding up the windows. On top of the $8,800 in rent, an advertising contract with Yelp was $1,000 a month. The point-of-sale system was $284. Cable and internet, $180. The alarm system, $165. Ms. Easterbrook poured a beer and then remembered that the six tapped kegs would also soon go flat — another $1,200. “We’re about to find out what we can and can’t pay for,” Mr. Kachingwe said.
Within days, he had a creative plan for survival: Use the Hatch’s tiny kitchen to cater meals for a government operations hub a few miles away. He had already met with city officials.
“We have a saying that closed mouths don’t get fed,” he said. “My main goal is just trying to figure out how we can possibly, one, survive, and two, get people anything in their pockets.”
A few days later, Mr. Kachingwe said the catering idea was looking unlikely. But he had a new plan: The Hatch would become a takeout joint. “We’re going to see what it looks like,” Mr. Kachingwe said. “Because I have no clue.”
‘Bien, gracias a Dios’
Santos is the sort of man who blesses you when he meets you. “Que Dios te bendiga,” he says. When you ask him how he is, he often replies, “Bien, gracias a Dios.” And when you part ways, he offers another blessing for the road.
By early April, weeks into joblessness, he was still optimistic. He had begun taking morning walks in the hills and leading nightly family prayer circles. “Almost every day, we are praying that God takes control,” said Santos, who asked to be identified only by his first name because of his family’s immigration status.
God had carried him through difficult times before, he said. His first five years in the United States were spent working 70 hours a week in a buffet for less than $5 an hour and a bed in a house crammed with colleagues. After authorities raided the place for human trafficking, he lost his job and his home. Eventually he found dishwashing work and welcomed four of his children to the United States from Guatemala.
In 2016, he began working the grill at the Hatch and settled in there, making roughly $2,500 a month. He sent a slice of his pay to his wife and remaining two children in Guatemala, whom he hasn’t seen in 12 years. Last year, he won legal residence. Life had been improving.
Now he wasn’t sure if he could pay rent. When I visited him one day in early April at the three-bedroom house beneath elevated train tracks that he shared with four children and seven grandchildren, he swung open the iron security gate, wiped his bleary eyes and smiled to reveal his missing teeth.
Standing in the driveway, amid scattered children’s toys and bags of empty cans collected from the Hatch, he said the family had just barely made their $2,860 rent for March, plus about $500 more for utilities. He and his children had applied for jobs at a recycling plant and a tortilla-chip factory, but were turned away. “We are OK right now, assuming this ends in a week or two,” he said. “But if this goes on longer, then it really worries me.”
I asked him if he had any questions. He hesitated. If it wasn’t too much trouble, he said before blessing me, did I know of any place that was hiring?
‘Right now our worry is financial’
A few miles away, Maria, the Hatch’s cleaner, was having a more difficult start. Her nagging back pain had sharpened, and at times, she couldn’t walk. She started paying for $100 chiropractor sessions, a service not covered by her health insurance, cutting sharply into her slim savings. (We agreed to publish only her first name because of her immigration status.)
Like Santos, Maria and her husband have scraped by since they arrived in the Bay Area from Coeneo, a small town in Mexico, in 1998. Her husband labored in the smoky kitchens of cramped East Bay restaurants, working under fake $20 documents, while she collected bottles and cans and raised their children.
Since 2016, Maria, 55, has taken the 7 a.m. bus to the Hatch to clean, earning sometimes $400 a week, or about $20,000 a year. (Her husband sometimes helped her, but was otherwise unemployed.) The family could hardly afford life before the virus. Their share of the monthly rent costs $1,000; Maria’s stepdaughter, who works at a Toyota dealership, has helped keep them afloat.
“Right now our worry is financial. To pay the rent, to pay the bills, to buy food,” Maria said in Spanish. “Because the diseases themselves, thank God, haven’t touched us yet.”
Mr. Oleson, the bartender, was also struggling. After a grocery run and a $270 late phone bill, he said he had just $20 to his name and plenty more in debt. His girlfriend had left her job at a marijuana dispensary, in part to protect Mr. Oleson, who worried his asthma put him at particular risk of the virus. “I’m completely broke,” he said, adding an expletive. “This couldn’t have come at a worse time.”
Mr. Oleson, 34 and from Portland, Ore., is the kind of hipster who plays 1970s soul vinyls during his DJ sets but wears 1980s metal shirts around town. When we met, he had a bushy beard beneath his mask and lots of tattoos he couldn’t explain. “No story,” he said, when I asked him about a goat head spitting fire on his triceps.
He took home roughly $2,000 a month at the Hatch and spent about half on rent and bills. When the lockdown began, he immediately filed for unemployment and food stamps. Mr. Oleson said he also felt lucky to have another safety net: his sister. She could lend him more money if needed; she was already doing his laundry and had sewn him a mask. “By May, hopefully it’ll swing back,” he said, “and I’ll only be a couple thousand in debt.”
‘The logical thing would just be to shut it down’
Takeout, it turns out, is not so easy. To start, the Hatch didn’t have a phone, so Mr. Kachingwe posted his cell on the website. He and Ms. Easterbrook had to scour stores to find takeout containers, beer growlers and Mason jars for to-go cocktails. Their point-of-sale system couldn’t handle internet orders, so they contracted with a new company, which required building an online menu. One weekday in late March, I walked into the bar to find Ms. Easterbrook hunched over her laptop, painstakingly adding custom sauce options for all the varieties of chicken wings.
Yelp, the online-review site, locked them out because of an overdue bill, so they couldn’t alert prospective customers. The refrigerator broke. And finally, there was what to do about the delivery apps.
UberEats, Grubhub, DoorDash, Postmates and Caviar have long been operating what many restaurant owners describe as parasitic businesses. According to the restaurant industry, they intercept customers and then take roughly 30 percent of the sale for facilitating the online order and delivery. The apps says they provide restaurants with customers they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Mr. Kachingwe considered the apps’ 30 percent cut and decided to go it alone, calling it “a moral stand.” He bet that the Hatch could generate enough business with Instagram posts, fliers in nearby condo buildings and the loyalty of its regulars. He would run the deliveries himself.
On March 28, two weeks after the lockdown began, the Hatch opened again for business. Ms. Easterbrook manned the empty bar to make Mason-jar margaritas and pack orders while Santos and Mr. Garcia split days on the grill.
In the first week, the Hatch received nine orders for $369. I was one of them.
I asked Mr. Kachingwe how he felt about his decision. “Honestly, pretty good,” he said. He knew business would be slow at first. “Next week should be better. Right?”
Five days went by, and I watched the Hatch’s Instagram account post increasingly desperate pitches. There were mentions of free delivery, Taco Tuesdays, Tiger King tie-ins and eventually just a shot of Ms. Easterbrook waiting, bored, by the phone.
I called Mr. Kachingwe back. He was signing up with Grubhub. Ms. Easterbrook had canvassed other restaurants and convinced him. “She’s like, ‘Everybody’s in the same boat. They hate it. They don’t want to do it. But what is the choice?’” Mr. Kachingwe recounted. He asked me to hold; he was getting a drive-through coronavirus test. (Negative.)
Grubhub quickly caused sales to climb, but it wasn’t enough to cover overhead and payroll. The Hatch brought in about $3,250 in April and $1,500 in May. Before the virus, the bar averaged roughly $70,000 a month. By May, Mr. Kachingwe had burned through roughly $20,000 in emergency funds and another $20,000 of his personal money. “The logical thing would just be to shut it down,” he said. “But in this case, it’s about the people.”
‘I couldn’t stand the pain anymore’
When I met Maria at her Oakland home on May 1, her husband pushed her to the door in a chair. She could no longer afford the chiropractor, and now she couldn’t walk. When she rose for a moment, her face twisted. A week earlier, she had gone to the emergency room. “I couldn’t stand the pain anymore,” she said in Spanish. “It grabs me and, for a few seconds, won’t even let me move.” The doctor gave her pain pills, and ordered more tests. While she talked, her 18-year-old daughter sat at her feet, looking at the floor.
Weeks earlier, on the phone, Maria had broken into tears telling me that, to pay rent, she spent the $800 she had been saving for her daughter’s high-school graduation gift. After that, she stopped answering my calls and texts for a while. Eventually she got back in touch and explained her silence: She had stopped paying the phone bill.
On that call, I asked her if she had enough to eat. Her voice choked. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s very, very difficult.”
The situation was also getting dire at Santos’s home. He had returned to the Hatch, but was only notching 15 hours a week at most. The roughly $225 each week barely helped the family make April rent, but now May was uncertain.
His children kept applying for jobs but hadn’t gotten callbacks. He stopped paying his car insurance. They cut back on meat and began going to a nearby food bank. Their meals were simple, like eggs and beans. Someone from his grandchildren’s school called and wondered why the children weren’t attending virtual classes. That answer was easy, Santos said. The family doesn’t have a computer.
They continued to pray each night. “Humanity has reached an extreme that has offended God. So we ask for mercy,” he recited to me.
A month earlier, the federal government had approved $2.2 trillion in stimulus funds, but Santos and Maria were not caught by the safety net. Santos and his children were ineligible for unemployment and stimulus payments because of their immigration and tax statuses. Maria, as an undocumented immigrant, also did not qualify.
Maria lamented that she paid taxes like legal residents but had few of their rights. President Trump “describes us as thieves but that isn’t the case,” she said. “We are working people. We are people who want to provide for our family.”
California officials were offering $500 payments for undocumented immigrants, but to Maria, they would simply complicate her effort to become a citizen. “It’s not worth the trouble,” she said. “Tell Trump if you see him that we’re starving, and he is at his heart’s content at home.”
Mr. Oleson, on the other hand, had landed softly. On April 7, three weeks after the lockdown began, he received his first unemployment check, at $421 a week. “That’ll at least help me pay my rent,” he said. A week later, the federal stimulus funds arrived; he received the $1,200 lump sum, and his unemployment checks started including an extra $600 a week. “I’m ecstatic,” he said. “It’s nice to see that shit actually works.”
He was now making more than $1,000 a week, roughly double his pay at the Hatch. He planned to replace his broken laptop and pay off debts, though he admitted he was eyeing a new TV, too. “I want to be relatively cautious and not just like go nuts right now,” he said, “which I’m very tempted to do.”
‘The clock is ticking’
More than a month after the Hatch first closed its door, Mr. Kachingwe’s catering idea had fallen apart, the takeout business was bleeding money, and local officials were hinting that the bar wouldn’t be welcoming back customers anytime soon.
New rules for bars were expected to require six feet between most customers. At the Hatch, there is not much more than six feet from the bar to the back wall. “With that, we can’t operate,” Mr. Kachingwe said. “That’s not even realistic.”
But Mr. Kachingwe was focusing his attention on a possible lifeline: The stimulus package. Since the federal government announced $349 billion in forgivable loans for small businesses, Mr. Kachingwe had been researching how to apply. “We’ve got to find a way to make this work because people are depending on us, not just for financial stability, but emotional health,” he said. He knew his employees’ rent and food bills were piling up. “The clock is ticking,” he said.
He applied with JPMorgan Chase as soon as he could, starting a maddening, weeklong back-and-forth that resulted in his first application not going through and his second getting rejected because it was too late. Mr. Kachingwe was never able to get a person on the phone, while the banks’ richest clients received white-glove service.
He rushed to apply with another lender, this time a start-up called Lendio. “If we got it, then we would be OK,” he said. “But without it, then it just falls on me to finance everything.”
Then he saw the headlines: The federal money had run out. Later that day, his typically bright outlook had darkened. “I’m doing terrible,” he said. “It’s such a mess.”
Several hours later, he sent me a text showing an email from Lendio. The email began by noting that the federal funds had been exhausted. Then it went on. “Good news! Your application has been accepted,” it said. “This means funds have been reserved for you.” He sent me crying emojis.
On May 15, four weeks later, I peered through the Hatch’s window as I waited for Mr. Kachingwe. The bar that two months earlier had buzzed with people was now cluttered with power cables, kitchen gear and other oddities, like a disco ball, a motorcycle fender and a broken fence board on which someone had scrawled, “Your girl smells like cat food.”
Mr. Kachingwe double parked his Prius (his other ride is a motorcycle) and let me inside, his dreadlocks held back by a gray ninja headband. “We got the money,” he said as he sat down on a stool, “and it’s a nightmare.”
To make the $72,500 loan forgivable, he had to spend it all in eight weeks, including three-quarters of it on payroll. Yet he had few workers to pay. Some employees, like Mr. Oleson, were loath to lose their unemployment checks. And Mr. Kachingwe wasn’t sure if he could pay himself. “I can’t get anyone to take this money,” he said.
That wasn’t entirely true; some of his workers would have been happy to take a fat paycheck. In reality, Mr. Kachingwe was worried about handing out the government’s money and then being on the hook. If he didn’t spend the funds precisely to the government’s specification — and have the receipts to prove it — he would have a new pile of debt on top of his failing business.
“It’s one thing to spend my personal money, but it’s another to spend $73,000 of the government’s money and have to pay it back,” he said. “This can ruin people.”
‘We can say we did everything we could’
When I called Maria after Memorial Day, her husband answered. “She will call you back,” he told me in Spanish. “We’re at the hospital.” After she returned home a week later, she shared the bad news: Doctors had found cancer in her hip. She was getting more tests and was unsure how much treatment her insurance would cover. She had decided to take one of the $500 checks for undocumented California residents but, after dozens of calls, she couldn’t get through on the government hotline. “It’s always busy,” she said.
Santos had become difficult to reach, and when I did, he was stressed. His doctor was urging him to undergo surgery on a painful hernia in his abdomen, and his family didn’t pay the rent due on June 1. “I can’t say what’s going to happen,” he said.
Even Mr. Oleson, relatively flush, was struggling. He has long suffered from depression, and the money hadn’t rid him of anxiety. “It’s a very easy time to get depressed,” he said. Then, over Memorial Day weekend, he learned that his mother had colon cancer. He wanted to fly to New Mexico to see her, but was nervous about the virus. “Life still goes on in the pandemic,” he said. “I guess no other traumas stop.” (Days later, I spotted him hoisting a sign at a downtown protest.)
Finally, Mr. Kachingwe told me that someone had broken into the Hatch and stolen $19,000 worth of stuff, including laptops, liquor and a bike. “It happens,” he said. But at least the Hatch was spared any damage from looters during the first nights of demonstrations against racism and police brutality. Mr. Kachingwe had put up a sign identifying it as a black-owned business. The Money Mart across the street was destroyed. (On Sunday, Mr. Kachingwe and Ms. Easterbrook helped organize neighbors to paint the words “Black Lives Matter” on the pavement outside the bar and down three city blocks.)
Mr. Kachingwe had a final plan to save the business. The planned sister bar next door would become a flower shop that also sold beers to go. (Ms. Easterbrook is a trained florist.) As for the Hatch, new rules effectively blocked it from opening to customers this summer, so Mr. Kachingwe built a takeout window into the kitchen, found an ice-cream supplier and bought four slushie machines. Then he secured a verbal commitment from the city to close the street to most vehicles, allowing him to move tables outside for customers. The plan seemed firmer than his previous ideas.
“At the very least, we can say that we did everything that we could,” said Mr. Kachingwe, who decided last week that he would use the federal loan.
“At some point in time, the Hatch would have had to close,” he added. “The fact that people had a chance to relax here and escape from whatever problems they were having — to me, that’s a victory.”
Reporting was contributed by Kirla Oyola-Seal and Sonia Duarte Nicas.