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New York restaurant owner Sean Feeney, who is advising President Donald Trump on federal relief efforts for restaurants, recently told his laid-off employees there is “less than 1 in a million chance” that any of their lives would be threatened by the coronavirus.
“While all of the data shows there is less than 1 in a million chance for any of us on this email to have our lives at risk by this virus we do have to remain patient and smart,” he wrote in a May 14 email obtained by Insider.
Feeney told Insider he was citing analysis of CDC data on deaths per million people in the US. In New York City, one out of 526 people have died and one out of every 167 people has been hospitalized due to covid-19.
“I did not mean in any way shape or form to downplay the severity of this pandemic — I would never do that,” Feeney said.
“We aren’t reopening our doors until it’s safe,” he added.
Feeney was invited by the president to participate in a Monday roundtable of restaurant industry leaders during which he praised Trump and urged him to make fixes to current policy addressing the economic crisis.
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New York restaurant owner Sean Feeney, who is advising President Donald Trump on federal relief efforts for the restaurant industry, recently told employees at his two Brooklyn restaurants that there is “less than 1 in a million chance” that any of their lives would be threatened by the coronavirus.
“While all of the data shows there is less than 1 in a million chance for any of us on this email to have our lives at risk by this virus we do have to remain patient and smart,” Feeney wrote in a May 14 email to staff obtained by Insider.
The restaurateur’s underestimation of the virus’ threat to workers at New York City restaurants highlights the industry’s balancing act as it weighs more optimistic figures on COVID-19 recovery, financial concerns, and workers’ safety.
In a Tuesday interview with Insider, Feeney said that he didn’t mean to minimize the risk posed by the virus and pointed out that his restaurants, Lilia and Misi, have been closed since mid-March.
“I did not mean in any way shape or form to downplay the severity of this pandemic — I would never do that,” Feeney said. “And I think that everything that we’ve done would show you that that’s pretty serious. We aren’t reopening our doors until it’s safe.”
Feeney said he’s not sure when Misi and Lilia will reopen. Grovehouse plans to rehire a “handful” of employees to reopen its pasta company and launch new concept, created with the pandemic’s safety risks in mind, within the next two weeks.
Roughly one out of every 167 people in New York City has been hospitalized due to COVID-19
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Feeney and his co-founder, Chef Missy Robbins, laid off nearly all of the staff at Misi and Lilia when the restaurants closed in mid-March.
Grovehouse has committed to providing healthcare through at least the end of May and established plans to share profits with workers when restaurants reopen.
According to Feeney, most employees have been receiving state and federal unemployment, and Grovehouse has helped others find new jobs.
Feeney said he was citing analysis from The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity president Avik Roy, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Roy wrote in a May 18 Medium post that there have been 1.3 deaths associated with COVID-19 among 15-to-24 year olds for every million people in the US and 8.5 deaths among 25-to-34 year olds. The death rate increases as the population grows older.
But the death and hospitalization rates for New York City, where there have been more than 191,000 COVID-19 cases, paint a significantly more dire picture. By May 14, the date of Feeney’s email, more than 20,400 New York City residents had died of COVID-19, including over 6,200 Brooklyn residents — more than any other borough in the city.
According to New York City’s Health Department, one out of 526 people living in New York City have died in due to a confirmed or probably COVID-19 case. Citywide, roughly one out of every 167 people has been hospitalized, with at least 50,217 hospitalizations.
While the majority of New Yorkers who’ve died from COVID-19 were over 65 years old or had preexisting health conditions, thousands of city residents have been hospitalized and died who don’t fall into those high risk groups. Closer to 1 in 5,356 18-to-44 year olds have died and 1 in 446 of all 18-to-44 year olds living in New York City have been hospitalized as a result of covid-19.
The White House turned to Feeney and other restaurateurs as the industry forms a plan for recovery
Feeney, a former Wall Street financier, was invited to participate in a roundtable of restaurant industry leaders — including Panera CEO Niren Chaudhary and Jose Cil, the CEO of Burger King and Popeyes’ parent company, Restaurant Brands International — at the White House on Monday.
During the televised conference, hosted by Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, the secretaries of Labor and the Treasury, and top White House advisers, Feeney praised the president’s response to the economic crisis and compared his own career trajectory to Trump’s.
“Mr. President, like yourself, I’m a New Yorker and a career changer. I was a former bond trader at Goldman Sachs, and now I own restaurants in Brooklyn,” Feeney said. “The immediate and coordinated response by your administration to support out of work employees was inspiring and it should make us all proud to be Americans.”
He added that he and other restaurant industry executives view Trump “as one of us.”
Feeney told Insider on Tuesday that he was trying to convey that he views “everyone as the same,” citing the inspiration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for whom his son — whose middle name is “King” — is named.
“I would say the same thing to you, I would say the same thing to Michael Jordan, Missy Robbins, my wife,” Feeney said. “During the darkest times, I just want everyone to get through this together.”
Feeney joined independent and chain restaurant leaders in urging Trump to make fixes to current policy, including extending the time frame during which restaurants can pay their workers with funds from the Paycheck Protection Program from eight weeks to 24 weeks.
Feeney is a founding member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, along with fine dining restaurateurs Thomas Keller and Will Guidara, both of whom also participated in Monday’s roundtable.
While small, independent restaurants are struggling during the coronavirus pandemic, the White House has faced criticism for primarily turning to male restaurant chain CEOs as advisors in recovery.
As restaurants reopen, concerns about workers’ safety continue
Trump congratulated Feeney on his success in the restaurant industry, saying that he knows one of the Grovehouse Hospitality Group’s restaurants is “great.”
It seems likely the president was referring to Grovehouse Hospitality Group’s first restaurant, Lilia, where even celebrities struggle to get a table. The New York Post reported that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner were spotted dining at Lilia back in late 2016.
Misi and Lilia supporters have donated more than $159,000 to the restaurants’ staff.
In the May 14 email, Feeney said that checks for workers were in the mail or available for pick-up at Lilia on Monday. He also said that Grovehouse was trying to see what it could do to assist in healthcare costs in June, as the “challenge of not being open for business is real.”
More than eight million restaurant workers are out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic, more than any other industry.
As restaurants across the US are allowed to reopen dining rooms, some owners are in no hurry to do so. Fast-food chains with drive-thrus have been slow to reopen dining rooms, adding many new safety measures when they do so. Feeney said that Grovehouse has spent the last weeks creating a plan for reopening.
“At this moment, we’re not sure about a lot of our future,” Feeney said. “We just need more information — more data.”