The Issue Is: Bringing business back to California, Tom Steyer and Wolfgang Puck weigh in

What should have been a week punctuated by celebrations of Cinco De Mayo and Mother's Day, has instead been defined by anxiety, as more and more states cautiously ease restrictions in an attempt to reopen their economies.

As coronavirus-induced shutdowns led non-farm payrolls to fall 20.5M in April, and the nation's unemployment rate to shoot to a Depression-era-level 14.7%. In February, before COVID19 was declared a global pandemic, the US unemployment rate was just 3.5%.

This week Elex Michaelson breaks down the latest reopening efforts, speaking with businessman Tom Steyer and celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck about the future of California, the restaurant industry, and more.


When Tom Steyer last appeared on The Issue Is in late-February, he was running to become the Democratic nominee for President. Two short months later, after dropping out following a third-place finish in the South Carolina primary, Steyer now serves as the co-chair of California’s Economic Recovery Council.

As California enters Phase 2 of reopening, meaning curbside service at some restaurants and retailers, the conversation kicks off with a discussion of the Recovery Council’s efforts.

“What Governor Newsom has proposed, and is moving forward on, is a phased reopening of the California economy,” Steyer said. “The opening of the economy will be done gradually, in a way that is dictated by health concerns.”

With the state’s phased approach, offices, gyms, salons, and in-person shopping at bookstores and clothing stores are being held for Phases 3 and 4. These phases may arrive weeks, if not more, down the road.

“I think there’s been this breakdown between essential and nonessential businesses, and what we’re moving towards is a breakdown between businesses that can open safely, and ones that are not yet ready to be opened,” Steyer said. “So we’re seeing the gradual reintroduction of retail, across the board, but it’s being done gradually and in phases, with protocols and with rules.”

Steyer said the protocols introduced by the council are being put in place to protect workers and customers, and will also allow businesses to be sustainable and profitable going forward.

“The key thing to remember,” Steyer said, “is that we need to put health first. Retail isn’t going to work if working people don’t feel safe in their jobs, and if customers don’t feel safe in the experience.”

As the recovery council, which also includes the likes of Disney CEO Bob Iger, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and former CA Governors Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, looks ahead, they must also confront some increasingly worrisome numbers for the state, namely a projected 18.7% unemployment rate, and a $54B deficit.

For context, prior to the virus, California had amassed a budget surplus of $21B.

Steyer, as co-chair of the council, is now working with the federal government to secure aid and relief, a federal government led by a President he spent the past three years working to impeach, or replace.

“Look, this is no time for partisanship,” Steyer said. “We are in both a health crisis, and an economic crisis. I think it’s absolutely incumbent on everybody to put aside any divisions in our society, whether those divisions are partisan divisions between Democrats and Republicans, whether those divisions are by geography, or by level of government… when the lives, and the livelihoods, of Americans and Californians, are at risk, it’s absolutely incumbent on everybody to work together and to put any differences aside.”

In that spirit, and in light of the positive working relationship that has formed between President Trump and Governor Newsom throughout the pandemic, Steyer was asked if he had positive words to speak of the President. Steyer echoed the need to unite, but would not comment specifically about President Trump.  

Steyer did have positive things to say about former Governors Brown and Schwarzenegger, and what he’s learned from them while working on the state’s task force.

“Those guys have an amazing perspective, because they’ve gone through the ringer in real-time, and they can take a long view and talk about what’s really important,” Steyer said. He added that no matter what arose, Newsom, Schwarzenegger, and others never lost sight of their overall priorities like sustainability and justice.

It’s those similar priorities that have led Steyer, whether he’s co-chairing the council, or running for President.

“I’ve always said, publicly and privately, that what I’ve been trying to do is have the most positive impact I can,” Steyer said. “My goal has always been to try and figure out what I can do to push for the, basically, justice-oriented values that I believe most deeply in.”

Steyer added that, led by his values, he is motivated to do the best he can for California, to give the best advice to Governor Newsom, and to come out of this crisis with a more just, equitable, sustainable, and forward-thinking California.


Next, Elex was joined by Wolfgang Puck, the world-famous chef and restaurateur known for restaurants like Spago and for catering the annual Governor’s Ball after the Academy Awards.

As America looks to reopen, Puck has now been recruited by President Trump to join 23 other industry leaders on the “Great American Revival” Restaurant Industry Task Force, providing advice on how and when to reopen an industry currently projected to lose $240B as a result of the ongoing shutdown.

As with Steyer, recovery is where the conversation began.

“The future, at least right now, looks very difficult,” Puck said, “unless we do something.”

That something? A bailout of the restaurant industry, and a reversal of Carter-era rules prohibiting corporate deductions for business expenses such as meals, a change which Puck believes could stimulate an industry very much in need.

“Right now, we are closed, or we do a little takeout, but the hard part will be when we open again... [People] forget how many people we employ, busboys, dishwashers, cleaners, waiters, cooks, they don’t make big salaries, they don’t want to be sitting at home collecting unemployment, so it trickles down. Then it goes farther, our farmers, our fishermen, they all need to sell their stuff to survive.”

For restaurants that are able to survive and reopen though, either via curbside pick-up, or under new in-house occupancy guidelines, Puck’s primary concern is safety,

“We’re going to get a lot of new laws from the government, they’re going to tell us what we have to do, we want to do the right thing, we want to keep employees safe, we’re going to keep our customers safe,” the celebrity chef said. “When we open up, it makes no sense to open up if people don’t feel safe, they won’t come to our restaurants, we might as well be shut down.”

In an effort to keep diners safe, Puck anticipates that those new laws may also lead to a new experiences for diners. As face masks become the norm of the foreseeable future, diners will have to do without seeing the friendly smile or welcome of their waiter, they won’t be able to sit close, and those are circumstances Puck said people need to accept for the time being.

Creating a new experience for diners, especially at 25% in-house capacity, may not be easy for all businesses though, especially small mom-and-pop operations, of which Puck anticipates some 15% may unfortunately never reopen.

“If we could be successful with 50% occupancy, we would be lucky,” Puck said. “Sooner or later, you’re going to run out of cash. By the time you pay all the overhead, the employees, everything, the food costs, the labor costs, it won’t pan out.”

Hoping to mollify the financial struggles within the industry, Puck discussed his conversations with President Trump in which he has called for the aforementioned stimulus and deduction reform.

“[President Trump] is a business person, he actually understands when I told him we need a stimulus for the restaurants, he actually got it,” Puck said. “He was very willing and very attentive to it, and really understood it, and really said he’s going to do something, so hopefully he will stand by his word.”

Moving away from the political and financial discussions about the future of the restaurant industry, the conversation then shifted to focus more on food, especially as most Americans find themselves at home, likely spending more time in the kitchen.

Among the advice Puck offered for wannabe chefs:
--Look online to discover new recipes
--Find good ingredients, maybe for a nice salad
--Focus on vegetables, but steam or grill them, don’t boil them
--Try something new, maybe using favorite spices to liven up your meals

The conversation wrapped up with a discussion of Puck’s life during the pandemic.

The chef talked about cooking at home, especially with his two youngest children, making sunny-side-up eggs with a little balsamic vinegar and fresh-ground pepper for breakfast or macaroni and cheese for dinner.

Puck also revealed what he’s been doing to entertain himself in quarantine, saying that he didn’t particularly enjoy “Tiger King,” and rather than binging shows, he’s been binge-reading, making his way through books about Spain’s culture and cuisine, Winston Churchill, and human grit.

“I love reading,” Puck said. “At night, when I go to sleep, before I go to sleep, I have a tea and I read for an hour, and that makes me sleep a little bit better.”


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