At your service: Audrey Denney joins local business folks to help restaurant employees affected by COVID-19

Rasheed McNeal at Bella's Sports Pub. Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

If you hang around the downtown Chico bar and restaurant scene at all, you’ll probably recognize Rasheed McNeal. He’s been working at Bella’s Sports Pub and, more recently, at sister restaurant Parkside Tap House, since 2014. Following the state’s coronavirus-triggered shutdown of bars and restaurants two weeks ago, however, he’s not quite as visible.

“My hours were cut way back,” he said. He wasn’t exaggerating—30-plus hours a week were cut to 12 or fewer overnight. We were chatting on the sidewalk outside Bella’s new digs on Main Street, as he was on curbside pickup duty that evening. The place appeared ominously vacant. I wasn’t allowed inside for health reasons, and I remarked that I hadn’t even been in since Bella’s moved from its old location on Broadway.

“We were open for two days before we were shut down,” he said.

McNeal was one of roughly 90 people employed at Bella’s and Parkside before the shutdown. And those are just two of the hundreds of local establishments affected by the state’s order. While some are maintaining hours and staff with things like curbside pickup and delivery, hours are being cut drastically. Many places have opted to close altogether.

Seeing the huge impact COVID-19 is having on the service industry prompted House of Representatives hopeful Audrey Denney to act. A former employee of such places as The Banshee and Sierra Nevada Taproom & Restaurant, she knows firsthand what bartenders, servers and kitchen staff are likely going through right now.

“Almost all of my best friends in this town are people I met through working in the service industry,” she said by phone. “It’s an incredibly tight community. Everyone knows everyone and takes care of each other.

“I also think it’s one of our most vulnerable populations, because so many of them work paycheck to paycheck—and they also were the first to get shut down.”

So when she got a phone call from Chris Kobz, branch manager at Summit Funding, offering $5,000 in seed money to help people affected by the coronavirus, she immediately thought of service workers. Denney got to work and set up the Downtown Chico Service Industry Relief Fund through the North Valley Community Foundation, with herself, Kobz and local realtor John Barroso making up the board. The goal is to raise $100,000 by April 10, which would put $500 in 200 people’s hands. With 101 grant applicants already, Denney said she knows the need is much greater. But every bit helps, especially while so many are still awaiting unemployment checks.

McNeal, for instance, has three kids at home. He and his fiancée were planning to get married in May, but that’s going to be postponed till the threat of the virus is over, he said. Like many others in his position, he’s tried to apply for the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund set up by celebrity chef Guy Fieri, but the website had thus far been overloaded. He’s thankful for Denney, whom he knows personally, for trying to make an impact locally.

“Everybody wants to do something, and I’m in a unique position to be able to use my network to get something done,” Denney said. “I’m doing a combination of trying to hit the population that has the capacity to donate large amounts and also seeking small-number donations, because that’s how I funded my campaign. I’m asking that if you still have a job, to donate the amount you would spend at a restaurant or bar in a week.”

To qualify for a Downtown Chico Service Industry Relief Fund grant, one must have been employed by a local bar or restaurant in the downtown area (which actually extends from Eaton Road to Skyway) before the COVID-19 shutdown. To donate, click here. Workers who lost their jobs or even experienced a decrease in hours because of the virus also can apply for unemployment benefits.

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