At Bootleggers BBQ, a stick-to-your-ribs smokehouse that usually draws crowds from around Missouri, the coronavirus pandemic has decimated sales. Even with expanded hours, the restaurant is doing approximately 40 percent of its usual business, according to owner Brian Staack. So when the price of meat doubled in his area, Staack did what several local businesses had done: He implemented a flat, 5 percent “COVID-19 surcharge” to every customer’s bill to help make up the cost.
“Looking back, it was probably a bad idea to call it a COVID-19 surcharge,” he told The Daily Beast.
Within days, the restaurant was flooded with phone calls and social media posts accusing it of ripping off customers. Several callers said they thought the restaurant should burn down. Just two days after implementing it, Staack called off the surcharge.
“I could take the heat on social media and stuff like that, but for [my employees] to get the phone calls while they’re trying to do their job... it really upset them,” he said.
As businesses struggle to deal with increased costs caused by the pandemic, the “COVID-19 surcharge” has been popping up everywhere from restaurants to auto body shops. The charges range from a few dollars to up to 20 percent of the bill. And like so many things related to the virus, they’ve also become politicized, with some seeing them as the price of safety and others seeing them as a further restriction on their liberties.
“It’s quite stressful and everybody is divided against each other and hateful right now,” said Brian Benson, the owner of Purple Cow drive-thru in Kingsport, Tennessee, which recently had to up its prices. “We try not to reciprocate, but at the same time it's a burden.”
For workers jonesing to get back to business after the lockdowns, the realities of employment post-pandemic have been disappointing, to say the least. The increased price of goods is eating into restaurants’ budgets, and the need to stagger customers is hurting hair salons’ bottom lines. Even the American Dental Association has called on insurers to cover the price of personal protective gear, saying that the cost of new health regulations could “create an environment that may be unsustainable for dental practices.”
Emily Holt, an intensive care unit nurse in the Bay Area, told The Daily Beast she recently had to pay a $20 fee to take her elderly dog to the vet. The office said the fee was to cover protective gear for the providers—something that, as a health-care worker herself, Holt understood.
“I totally understand because PPE right now is going to the highest bidder, and it's really sad,” she said. “Some people are outraged, but they’ve gotta keep their heads above water.”
“I think if we want to be protected, we should be helping offset those costs,” she added.
But other consumers have been less understanding. Earlier this month, a customer tweeted a photo of a receipt from Kiko Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Lounge—a restaurant located just a few miles from Bootleggers—showing a $2.19 COVID-19 surcharge at the bottom. The photo sparked so much outrage on social media that the restaurant was forced to walk back its policy and plead with callers on Facebook not to harass the staff. A similar backlash caused the Chicago-based fast-food restaurant Harold’s Chicken on Broadway to walk back its surcharge the same day it was announced, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Benson said he also received threats when he implemented a COVID-19 charge at Purple Cow, after his beef supplier raised prices approximately 200 percent. The surcharge lasted about four hours before customers started complaining, Benson said, and he decided to increase the cost of beef products on the menu instead. But the business is still receiving menacing comments from customers and social media users. When his latest order of beef is used up, Benson is considering taking it off the menu entirely.
“What do you say to people that are like, ‘We hope you die, I hope you go bankrupt?’” he said. ‘I'm trying to protect the people who work for me, and myself , so we don’t lose our house and they have jobs.”
“[The price increase] is absolutely required, we have no choice, and we still might go under,” he added.
Suppliers have also reported being hit with pandemic-related surcharges. Scott Francka, a dairy farmer in Bolivar, Missouri, told Ozarks First that the Dairy Farmers of America had deducted $2,000 from his recent payment, labeling it a “COVID-19 cost.” He said he was told about it only two days before getting his receipt, and lost sleep over how he was going to make ends meet.
Unlike the restaurants, however, the Dairy Farmers of America did not appear to be ready to walk back its policy. In a statement, the association said the line item was added to account for “specific milk marketing costs associated with the pandemic.”
“This line item is not an additional expense for members, rather it is an accounting of milk marketing costs directly related to the coronavirus,” said Kristen Coady, senior vice president of corporate affairs. “By tracking these costs, we have been able to provide policymakers with data on the actual financial impact of COVID-19 for our dairy farmers.”
Staack, meanwhile, said he is trying to make ends meet without a surcharge by raising the prices on specific menu items. Every week, he spends at least three hours checking the price for each ingredient, adjusting the cost, and reprinting the menus.
“I know right now, for the next several months, we're not going to be making money,” he said. “I’m just trying to tread water to get to that point where things get better.”
“You just gotta smile and figure out how to work around it and keep on going,” he added.