One year ago, Chef Ming Tsai was in the kitchen at Blue Dragon, his restaurant in Boston's Seaport, on a busy Friday night. COVID-19 was already starting to spread across the country, and there were rumors that restaurants would soon shut down — along with other businesses, mass transit, and schools. As he observed guests ignoring public health guidelines, including mask wearing and maintaining social distance, he knew he would have to make the difficult decision to shut down in order to protect his employees.
Tsai spoke with Joe Mathieu on Morning Edition on March 18, 2020, shortly after closing Blue Dragon, and was emotional as he thought about the dire future of the restaurant industry and the incredible struggles he saw ahead for his employees.
“You just feel hopeless. Absolutely hopeless. All the 150 million Americans that are already poor, what is going to happen to them? I'm so scared for every restaurant employee, especially the Blue Dragon family,” he said during the 2020 interview.
One year later, he joined Mathieu on Morning Edition this week to talk about what this year has been like for restaurateurs and employees.
“It’s not changed at all, unfortunately,” Tsai told Mathieu. The business cost of shutting down has taken a toll, but Tsai said his biggest concerns are for his employees, many of whom are immigrants and are not receiving the government support available to other people.
“Restaurant workers — 50 percent are immigrants,” Tsai said. “But they’re not getting a bailout, they’re not going to get the $1400 or $2000 [stimulus check], they never got an unemployment check. They still pay taxes. The system’s broken."
"These poor immigrants that are not in the system and under the radar, are having unbelievable suffering. I can't tell you how desperate many restaurant employees are."Chef Ming Tsai
Tsai voiced frustration over Massachusett's vaccination rollout, questioning why food workers aren’t considered higher on the distribution priority list. He noted that other states, including New York, have allowed restaurant workers to get vaccines as dining re-opens.
Without vaccinating restaurant workers, Tsai doesn’t see how the state's restaurants can re-open safely. “It’s so careless and irresponsible, saying you’ll get vaccinated eventually," he said. “There’s no one more frontline, besides doctors and nurses and EMTs and firemen. The next ones are the people that work in food lines, food factories, waiters, cooks, people that work in the restaurant industry, all the way to the farmers. The whole food chain is so integral to keeping our country moving.”
Blue Dragon is still closed, and Tsai is not optimistic about re-opening. “I would hemorrhage money if I re-opened," he said. "The Seaport, where we’re at, is literally a ghost town.”
In addition, Tsai says that the restaurant industry is facing a major identity crisis due to a change in office culture. With many people still working from home and the likelihood that remote work will extend beyond the end of the pandemic, restaurants like Blue Dragon no longer can rely on business lunches and happy hours, leading Tsai and other owners uncertain of their ability to sustain urban restaurants.
The pandemic has also impacted Tsai on a personal level; he shared that his 95-year-old mother-in-law died of COVID-19 in December while in a nursing home.
“The dying alone was so painful,” Tsai said tearfully, as he recalled that 18 family members were able to gather virtually to keep her company. “We knew she heard us. That really was special, that she could feel the family love before she passed.”
WATCH: "Anyone who thinks this is a hoax, talk to anyone that has lost someone."
“This has happened 500,000 times," Tsai added about his loss, referring to the more than 500,000 lives across the country that have been lost to COVID-19 since the pandemic began. "This is the world’s story.”
Given the struggles of this year, Mathieu asked Tsai how he remains optimistic and why he continues to preach kindness.
“If the kindness curve is just a little steeper than the COVID curve, we got this. You can’t be selfish. You have to help strangers and people you know,” Tsai said. “When you’re in the hospitality business, you have one goal: take care of them, everyone else. You don't know most of them; they’re customers. That’s an act of kindness. That’s why most of us restaurateurs and chefs are in this business — we like to spread joy and kindness.”
WATCH: The emotional interview between Matheiu and Tsai in its entirety: