Waffle House’s Stand Against Lockdowns Is Exactly What America Needs—Almost

Waffle House CEO Walt Ehmer’s stance against lockdowns is courageous, but ultimately bolder action may be required to save businesses from the pernicious effects of lockdowns.

Walt Ehmer, the CEO of Waffle House, didn’t mince words when he explained his biggest problem with economic lockdowns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“None of the people who make the decisions to shut down businesses and impact people’s livelihoods ever have their own livelihood impacted,” Ehmer recently told Business Insider.

There’s clearly some hyperbole in the statement. After all, everyone is impacted to some degree by the lockdowns. But Ehmer’s larger point is correct: the people shutting down the economy are not being affected by lockdowns to the same extent others are.

When the coronavirus swept across America earlier this spring, Waffle House, which has locations in 25 states, was forced to shut down some 700 restaurants across the country. This put roughly 28,000 hourly Waffle House employees out of work, who became part of the 26.5 million Americans who filed for unemployment that month.

The story of these workers underscores an overlooked reality of the pandemic: lower-income Americans are being harmed the most by lockdowns.

Pew Research studies show that Hispanic women, immigrants, young people, and individuals with less education have been the most likely to lose jobs and the least likely to save income during the pandemic. They’ve also been by far the most likely to say they’ve struggled to pay rent or bills.

Ehmer says many people don’t seem to realize the harm that’s being done to the people who can least afford it.

“A lockdown is going to put a lot of people out of work,” Ehmer added in his interview. “It’s really not about the business — it’s about the people. These people have jobs, they have livelihoods, they need to take care of their families.”

It’s safe to say the politicians ordering these lockdowns have not suffered the same way. For starters, they still have their jobs. But it’s also more than that.

The reality is that many politicians have probably seen their wealth increase. The lockdowns have been hell on Main Street but great for Wall Street. The Dow Jones Industrial Average hit an all-time high this week, in large part because so many corporations have seen their competition sidelined, increasing their market share.

But the inequities of the pandemic go beyond wealth. Time and again, the pandemic has shown that politicians have not been subjected to the rules and regulations they pass in the same way every day Americans have.

They can make a quick phone call to buy jewelry at stores that are officially closed, as New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham did back in April. They can arrange an appointment with a stylist while salons are closed because these businesses are “not essential” (unless you appear on TV, in which case they are very essential), as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot did. Or, like Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney, they can ban indoor dining for others while sneaking out for a bite to eat on the sly.

These actions might earn lawmakers some bad press, but that pales in comparison to what restaurants have endured during the pandemic. Eateries like Waffle House have been among the industries hardest hit by the lockdowns. Many do not see eating out as an “essential” activity (until a close friend’s birthday comes up, that is) and research has shown that eating out, like gyms, poses a greater risk of spreading the virus than other activities.

It’s certainly true that some activities are going to pose greater risks than others, but the reality is that only individuals can determine how much risk is worth taking to engage in a given activity. (See Milton Friedman explain this idea to a student in the video below.) This is a truth lawmakers too often ignore.

When Gavin Newsom broke his own COVID-19 dining restrictions to enjoy dinner with friends, he knew there was a risk he might contract the virus. But he determined that the risk was worth the value of a night out. When Bill de Blasio went to the gym to work out while other New Yorkers were forbidden to do so, he knew there was risk—but he similarly determined the risk was worth the rewards of exercise.

To be clear, I’m not saying Newsom and de Blasio should not do these things because they come with risks. I’m saying everyone should be able to determine how much risk they’re willing to take to engage in a given activity.

This is how Ehmer is approaching his work at Waffle House. He’s not denying that there are risks to dining out or going to work. He’s saying these risks need to be balanced against the damage being done from lockdowns.

“The people making the decisions are not paying the same price that the workers in this country are paying,” Ehmer added. “I’m not going to work in an unsafe environment and I’m not going to let our folks work in an unsafe environment.”

When he says he works “side by side” with folks, Ehmer isn’t being metaphorical. When Business Insider interviewed the Waffle House CEO, he was in the back of one of the chain’s Memphis locations, wearing a polo uniform like the workers. He doesn’t sit on Zoom calls all day talking to managers at locations, but visits four to seven restaurants every day to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the employees who are delivering a service to customers.

“The true way to solve a crisis is to go stand in the middle of it, and figure out how to take care of people and figure out how to help put things back together,” Ehmer said. “That does not change regardless of what the crisis is.”

This might sound reckless to some people, but it’s a clear sign of leadership. It also reveals a basic economic reality that many of today’s decision makers often forget.

“Everyone does not have the ability to work from home,” Njeri Boss, Waffle’s House’s public relations manager, told Business Insider back in April.

Unlike many of us, restaurant workers and owners don’t have the luxury of working from home.

These jobs and eateries may matter little to the decision makers, but the National Restaurant Association points out that countless livelihoods are at stake because of the aggressive measures lawmakers are taking to slow the spread of the virus.

“Tens of thousands of additional restaurant bankruptcies — and millions of lost jobs — are now more likely, while the science remains inconclusive on whether any health benefits will accrue,” the NRA said in a letter sent to the National Governors Association on Tuesday.

For this reason, Ehmer says Waffle House restaurants will remain open unless they are forced to shut down by lawmakers.

“We’re trying to provide reliable careers and jobs for people,” Ehmer said.”We work side by side with folks.”

Ehmer’s stance against lockdowns is courageous, but ultimately bolder action may be required to save businesses from the pernicious effects of lockdowns.

Adhering to government orders that force businesses to close their doors may seem like the only sensible action to take, but there is another way— as Elon Musk has shown. In May, the Tesla founder simply refused to adhere to a government order forcing Tesla’s car plant in Fremont, California to remain closed.

“Tesla is restarting production today against Alameda County rules. I will be on the line with everyone else,” Musk tweeted. “If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.”

Many would view Musk’s action as radical, but as FEE’s Dan Sanchez pointed out, it was the embodiment of civil disobedience, a form of peaceful protest that is perhaps the most effective tool for fighting injustice in modern history.

[Musk] is not seizing government buildings. He is just asserting his right to open Tesla’s private property to willing employees, and to pay them to produce cars to sell to willing buyers. And he expressly offered himself up for arrest should the government decide to invade private property and cage him for it. It may seem sacrilegious to include an eccentric billionaire in the same tradition as such heroic figures as King and Gandhi. But I would argue that economic freedom is as worthy a cause as any. Our very lives, livelihoods, and living standards depend on production and commerce. If civil disobedience is ever justified, surely it is for the sake of providing for ourselves and our children.​

Musk’s act of civil disobedience paid off. Government officials caved and allowed Tesla to reopen. Musk’s peaceful defiance would have made Henry David Thoreau proud.

“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty,” the author wrote in his seminal work Civil Disobedience. “The obedient must be slaves.”

Ehmer’s opposition to lockdowns should be applauded, but eventually it may require more than words to break the lockdown spell. It may require peaceful but assertive action.


Jon Miltimore

Jonathan Miltimore is the Managing Editor of FEE.org. His writing/reporting has been the subject of articles in TIME magazine, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Forbes, Fox News, and the Star Tribune. Bylines: Newsweek, The Washington Times, MSN.com, The Washington Examiner, The Daily Caller, The Federalist, the Epoch Times.

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EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

1 reply
  1. Rhonda
    Rhonda says:

    We need to put our Gov. on notice….back off or be sued. He’s already being sued by the way.

    W. Virginia governor (R) had to drop his tyrannical mask order. Their AG set him straight. Will ours? — or will we see him in court?

    Who do you think will be paying these lawsuits? Us. So you might as well join them.

    “We cannot and must not shut down our state — we must protect the public health while staying open.”

    HIS THREAT: —I’ll close your business too !

    https://youtu.be/Eo2cPrMwKX0 …& then he backed down… COWARD knew he didn’t have the authority.
    Governor Forced to Back Down as Citizens Stand Up to Threats of Arrest Over Mask Order


    Across the world, governments are using their only tool — which is force, or the threat of — in a futile attempt to fight COVID-19. Because the government does not act on logic and reason and instead makes knee jerk reactionary measures that almost always end in loss of freedom, the citizens are growing weary of their actions. As a result, massive insurrection and protests are taking place across the planet in response to the arbitrary and tyrannical lockdown measures doled out by governments who claim to protect your freedom.

    Denmark recently made headlines for their resistance to the tyranny mentioned above. In Denmark, the national government reportedly proposed a new epidemic law which included the right to conduct forced physical exams, mandate isolation, and allows police-directed physically coerced vaccination. Naturally, the people resisted, and because of this resistance, the proposal was dropped.

    In the United States, similar tyranny is being doled out by governors turned dictators; and like the citizens of Denmark did, Americans are resisting as well.

    One example of this resistance unfolded in West Virginia. Last week, West Virginia governor Jim Justice, a Republican, issued another Executive Order – E.O. 77-20, which has “amended” the existing “mask mandate” issued by him in July.

    After issuing the Executive Order, Justice put out the following statement:

    “Beginning at midnight tonight, I will issue a mandatory requirement to wear a face covering indoors in all public buildings at all times. This is not just when social distancing cannot be maintained, this is mandatory wearing your face covering in all buildings, at all times, other than your home,” Justice said.

    The governor noted that if businesses refuse to order their customers to wear masks, “the next step will have to be closure.”

    He then went further, signalling law enforcement, that they will act if the mask rules are not followed. As WVNews reports, if patrons don’t follow the order, Justice told business owners to call the police. And if someone isn’t following the mask mandate, they’re obstructing justice, Justice said. The governor also said an obstruction of justice charge would apply to business owners/operators that are flaunting the rule.

    Naturally, the threat of being arrested for not wearing a mask in a place that may not even require you to wear one didn’t bode well with attorneys and citizens in the state, so they stood up to the governor.

    While some of the backlash came in the form of actual threats of violence toward the governor — which TFTP never condones — other backlash came in the form of lawsuits and even support from the attorney general, Patrick Morrisey.

    Morrisey took to Facebook this week to openly disagree with the governor and noted that criminal charges are never warranted in situations like this one and that as the state’s chief law enforcement officer — his office will not arrest people over it.

    Governor Justice just said that he does not “have the right to legislate or deem criminal charges on people.”
    We agree and elaborate further on this issue.

    As your Attorney General, we speak for the state on criminal matters at the appellate level and handle all criminal appeals at the WV Supreme Court and in the federal courts. We also speak for the legal interests of the people of West Virginia.

    During this pandemic, I will continue to ensure that any efforts to use the criminal code for any purpose are not applied in an arbitrary, improper, or heavy handed manner. Let’s be clear: no one is going to send people to jail and that simply should not be occurring with respect to the Governor’s executive orders.

    As many of you know, I weighed in against going after the barbershop owner in Berkeley County because it represented overreach. We will continue to weigh in similarly if such a fact pattern arises again.

    Significantly, our office will utilize its criminal appellate enforcement discretion to ensure that

    This is a serious virus and everyone must do their part to protect the public.

    Socially distance, wear coverings, keep good hygiene, minimize personal contact, and stay away from immunocompromised individuals, who may be particularly susceptible to the virus.

    We cannot and must not shut down our state — we must protect the public health while staying open.

    Act responsibly and know we will use our constitutional authority to protect your freedoms and the due process you are afforded to the fullest extent the law allows.

    While it is a good idea to social distance and stay at home if you are at risk for complications of COVID-19, government threatening to kidnap and cage you for non-compliance is most certainly not a good idea.

    For making these threats, the governor has since been forced to back down and will soon find himself in a courtroom.

    Beckley attorney Robert Dunlap lays it out perfectly, noting that emergency powers declared by states do not give governors the right to punish people for things that aren’t illegal.

    “Governors have the ability to take you out of jail, it’s called a pardon. They don’t have the ability to put you in jail.”


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