I have worked in New York’s hospitality industry for the last fifteen years; it is my home. This pandemic has held a mirror up to us; what I see reflected back from those around me is awe-inspiring: business owners have become advocates, brand ambassadors have become aid resources, chefs have gone from running the line to offering meals for those in need. The industry family is finding innovative ways to help each other and stay afloat, despite the ever-changing landscape.
While we are finding creative solutions to help those in need, what about the protections that were supposed to be in place in case of disaster? According to the Insurance Information Institute, insurance companies have $847 billion in reserves, an estimated $380 billion that could go to pay the claims of establishments who are struggling—establishments that were under the impression that “business interruption insurance” included events such as COVID-19.
Nate Whitehouse, a lawyer-turned-spirits importer and brand founder, started to dig into what was going on. Before COVID, Whitehouse wasn’t particularly involved in community advocacy and even less so in local politics. Nor was he well versed in the “nuances” of insurance. With Thirst Group, he has created a network of community organizers, built resources for local legislation, offered volunteer legal and insurance counsel, and initiated a call to action. “We are building an army of people who can help push forward change on this non-partisan issue that has an extreme effect on the survival of our industry. Part of that is people offering up their local knowledge and networks, but also involves sharing information and support across geographies. We are looking to partner with larger organizations, both for-profit like Campari and non-profit, like USBG.” On the simplest level, Thirst is collecting signatures from local business owners to present the issue before a local legislator in each district, the first of which is being scheduled for downtown Manhattan. In order to reach the signatures required for each district, 98 volunteers will be taking to the phones to reach out to small businesses in New York for this year’s Campari Day of Service on September 15th.
Thirst has formed chapters all over the US, building networks of community organizers to help spread the word via social media, word of mouth, and local outreach. There are weekly email updates, organizer phone calls, and PSAs from prominent members of our industry, such as Ivy Mix, David Wondrich, and Charles Joly. It’s entirely a volunteer effort—joining voices to draw attention to the larger issue of fighting for business interruption insurance claims.
Taking on these companies can seem insurmountable, but, in August, a federal judge in Missouri struck down Cincinnati Insurance Company’s motion to dismiss the case brought against them by local restaurants and salons. This is a ruling that will help other cases proceed as well. Thirst is following suit in federal court, filing what’s known as an “amicus curiae” or “friend of the court brief” on behalf of all hospitality companies in the US through the East End Trial Group of Pittsburgh.
East End is a relatively new firm founded right before the pandemic hit by Kevin Tucker and Kevin Abramowicz. They specialize in class-action lawsuits (“think Erin Brokovich but less cool”) The “Kevins” saw a Facebook post about Thirst and immediately reached out to offer help. They knew their “particular skill set” could help “give Thirst a voice in the leading court cases that will decide whether businesses are entitled to insurance coverage for losses suffered as a result of the pandemic.”
“Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against five major insurance carriers by small businesses denied business interruption coverage, including Lloyd’s of London, The Hartford, Travelers, Cincinnati Insurance Company, and Society Insurance Company. The federal court system is considering whether to group these cases by insurance carrier so that, for example, every case in federal court against Travelers is grouped and transferred to a single judge for resolution. We believe the pros outweigh the cons to this approach, and our amicus brief supports grouping because these small businesses should exit the pandemic the same way they entered and are enduring it: together. That said, businesses won’t get help if they don’t ask. Businesses who lost revenue because of COVID-19 should file a claim and consult a lawyer. Many lawyers, like us, give consults for free.”
Small businesses with questions can reach out to Thirst to access a network of legal aid, like East End, and individuals well-versed in the nuances of insurance.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, especially when there is no end in sight. Ours is an industry that builds communities, lends an ear, and supports those who need it. Turning that impulse around to care for each other might be the thing that shifts us into a new way of operating. The “Kevins” have a point: we are all in this, together.