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Documentary depicts struggles of Queens hospitality workers during the height of the pandemic

Jena Ellenwood sits in The Sparrow in Astoria during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of "Last Call")
Last Call website

A film documenting the hard times many in the restaurant and bar industry faced during the COVID-19 pandemic will premiere on July 3 at the Queens World Film Festival.

“Last Call: The Shutdown of NYC Bars” was filmed at the height of the pandemic after all indoor dining was banned by Governor Andrew Cuomo in mid-March last year. The documentary shows the heartbreaking mental, social and economic impacts the pandemic had on the hospitality industry.

The bar and restaurant industry are essential to New York City’s tourism industry, which brings in $46 billion a year. In February of 2020, over 315,000 people were working in the hospitality industry.

By April, hospitality employment had dropped to 91,000 jobs as restaurants closed.

The film focuses on Queens as the hardest-hit borough and highlights one restaurant and employee in particular. Jena Ellenwood, a bartender at The Sparrow Tavern in Astoria, takes the audience through her struggles with unemployment and mental health during social isolation.

At one point in the documentary, the director, Johnny Sweet, asks her how long she can last until her bank account hits zero. As Ellenwood sits in her apartment, wiping tears away, she says she has three months.

Viewers are taken back to the anxiety-inducing time where nothing was certain and the future was unknown.

Now, as almost 50 percent of New Yorkers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and the industry is reopening, the film can act as a reminder of what the city endured.

“We owe it to all the people we lost to document this [and] have this be a reminder of what it was like,” said Lisa Edward, the film’s producer.

Movie poster for “Last Call: The Shutdown of NYC Bars.” (Photo courtesy of “Last Call”)

The filmmakers also hope that people can watch the documentary and have a greater understanding and empathy for hospitality workers.

“Not everyone could work from home during the pandemic,” Edward said. “We were not all having the same experience. Hear the accounts and what people were going through, there were a lot of people going through really hard stuff.”

Ellenwood said that the film will also provide comfort for those who struggled with their mental health during social isolation and who may still be struggling with it.

“It’s OK to not be OK right now. We don’t need to rush back to normal,” Ellenwood said. “This has been a really traumatic year.”

The documentary features testimonial interviews from other workers and business owners in the industry. There are also hospital workers featured in the film.

To put the film together, creators had to get inventive with a two-story studio that was adapted to be a no-contact space.

One person upstairs remotely directed and operated the lighting, cameras and audio. Subjects would be interviewed via Zoom in the studio, never coming into contact with anyone.

“We really felt that what we were documenting was essential. It truly became a time capsule,” Edward said. “Everyone needed a purpose and we felt like documenting what was happening in the moment was our purpose [and] we did it in the safest way that we possibly could.”

Tickets are available for an in-person viewing on July 3 at 1 p.m. in the Queens Theatre. A virtual showing will be at 8 p.m. the same day.

For more information visit the “Last Call” website or the Queens World Film Festival website at queensworldfilmfestival.org.

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