EDITOR’S NOTE: The documentary film “Moundsville,” about the small town in West Virginia, will air on PBS later this year. John W. Miller, one of the film’s creators, has stayed in touch with friends he made there during the year-long shoot. This article is republished from the documentary’s website, where you can read more about Moundsville’s response to COVID-19.
When we were shooting Moundsville, our favorite places to eat were the New Great Chinese Buffet and Acapulco Mexican Restaurant, both on Lafayette Ave, and Bob’s Diner, where we shot some scenes, on 3rd street. (The other options were fast food joints like Burger King and McDonald’s.) Dave loved the Reuben at Bob’s, and I devoured the roast pork fried rice at New Great Chinese, and the taco salad at Acapulco.
I called these three smaller, privately-held restaurants, two of them owned by immigrants, to find out how they’re coping with the coronavirus pandemic. A couple weeks ago, West Virginia ordered all restaurants to close to customers. With an elderly and disease-heavy population, the state faces a risk of widespread coronavirus fatalities.
The Chinese buffet is closed, an answering machine message explained, “until further notice, thank you for your understanding and stay safe.” It is not a great time to operate a germ-spreading buffet, and there have been reports across the U.S. of harassment of Asian Americans. I left a message and haven’t heard back.
At Bob’s Diner, opened (by a man named Bob) in 1947, owner Gary Workman has retained a couple cooks, a driver, and somebody to answer the phone. The restaurant is making around 50 meals a day, far below the usual. Workman said he can handle “a couple more months of this, but after that, I don’t know.”
The biggest challenge, he said, has been finding enough to-go containers, after lockdown forced all restaurants to transition to takeout.
Acapulco, which Isaias Martinez, an immigrant from the Tamaulipas region in Mexico opened in 2000, has had to lay off “16 or 17” people, said Alex Martinez, his son, who appears in our film. A small, skeleton crew of cooks, cashiers and deliverers is still taking, making and sending out orders of fish tacos, grilled chicken salads and other favorites.
“These are slow, weird days,” Alex told me. In the film, Martinez, now 26, is a voice of reason, reflecting on how working-class Americans of different backgrounds share much more with each other than with the wealthy of their own groups.
“When you’re young in America, they teach you that whatever happens in the rest of the world, like famine, pandemics and wars, it doesn’t happen here,” he said this week. “Well, now it’s happened here, and nobody’s ready.”
The restaurant is pulling in 30 to 50 takeout customers a day, down from a couple hundred a day in normal times. “If it keeps going like this, we’ll be fine,” he said. “We are employing fewer people, and those we let go had to file for unemployment.” They can keep buying supplies and making food people need to eat.
Working the register, Martinez has been wearing a bandana he folds four times. He wasn’t able to find any protective masks in town. “There still are a lot of people who are uninformed and who aren’t that careful about spreading germs when they come in to make an order,” he said. “When you do any kind of service job, you’re on the front lines.”
When we first met a few years ago, Martinez had been thinking about college and medical school. Now, he’s decided the debt wouldn’t be worth it, and wants to pursue a short training course in computer programming instead. “We’re definitely going to be in an economic depression after this,” he said. “I don’t think college is worth it, unless the government steps in and make it affordable.”
Martinez is worried about racism against his Chinese restaurant neighbors down the road. “There needs to be huge systemic change in this country,” he said. “Who knows? It could happen. This country is so unpredictable.”
John W. Miller is a global journalist with two decades’ experience reporting from six continents and 45 countries, on print, digital, video and audio platforms. He has reported for the Wall Street Journal and Time Magazine and has won awards from the National Press Foundation and the German Marshall Fund. This article is republished from his website for the film “Moundsville.”