Indoor Dining Returns Soon. Restaurant Workers Are Terrified.

What will happen when customers head back inside? Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There are no signs that America’s COVID-19 pandemic will end, or even slow, anytime soon, yet in less than three weeks, restaurants in New York City — the country’s most densely populated metropolitan area — will reopen for indoor dining. For many of the city’s owners, this is very welcome news: the takeout and delivery model has proven to be an unsustainable plan for survival, and upcoming colder weather threatens the fragile success of outdoor dining. Yet rent and other fixed costs still must be paid. For independent operators there is simply no other option: Open for indoor dining or go out of business. Unfortunately, in making that happen, the needs and fears of the “essential” workers who will execute those plans are being more or less ignored.

On top of existing uncertainties and unease with outdoor dining setups, restaurant workers are suddenly being confronted with the possibility that their owners and managers will charge boldly ahead to offer indoor dining now that they have permission. Some hourly employees will have their voices heard during staff meetings and discussions, while others will simply be told that this is the new reality. Workers without compassionate leadership will have to once again choose between physical well-being and financial stability. Moreover, many of these same workers also fear sacrificing the only remaining “safe space” for employees, who until now could find comfort in the lower-risk areas of restaurants that were closed to the general public.

“I don’t trust customers or my employers to care about my humanity enough to even consider not partaking in indoor dining,” says one employee who works in a Williamsburg restaurant and now fears they’ll be forced to leave their job to remain safe. “Not feeling that care returned in this decision from my bosses and ultimately from customers when they’ll choose to dine indoors is really painful.”

At first glance, the outlined safety guidelines for indoor dining in New York City do appear comprehensive. But my colleagues in the industry all say they are designed to keep customers safe, not workers. Diners will be required to wear masks except for when seated at the table — which is where they interact directly with their servers. Temperature checks will also be mandated, but the tactic is widely derided as mere “hygiene theater” that can’t detect potentially contagious pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic cases.

Seating will be limited to 25-percent capacity, but many operators flouted the 50-percent capacity rules instituted back in March. What will prevent them from doing the same now? In theory, rules will be enforced by a citywide task force as well as patrons asked to self-report any violations they encounter. “New Yorkers Protecting New Yorkers” is the slogan that’s been chosen — a sunny way to say the government will largely abdicate its responsibility to keep people safe. The plan means that the fate of many restaurants will be left almost entirely in the hands of their patrons, many of whom have been historically disrespectful to wait staff and apathetic toward existing safety regulations.

I am frankly not comfortable putting the responsibility for my mental and physical wellbeing in the hands of strangers. Mental and physical safety are in jeopardy, as they have been for the duration of this pandemic, and the stakes only seem to be getting higher. Yes, we know more about how the virus spreads than we did in April or May, and New York City’s positive-test rate remains low. That is no guarantee against a future outbreak and responses to restaurant workers’ concerns is classic gaslighting: The virus is under control. There is nothing to worry about. This, despite indisputable gaps in safety nets provided to hourly workers, many of whom don’t even have health insurance. For diners who decide to eat out, they also choose to accept a certain degree of risk. For employees who must work to earn money, the choice to simply avoid a public space is not so easy.

We need to support restaurants, is the rallying cry, and I could not agree more. Restaurants need revenue to survive, but that survival shouldn’t also include an extreme emotional toll paid by the people who comprise the actual industry. How do we reopen in a manner that really is safe for everyone when ownership can be apathetic and the public concern is, at best, inconsistent? It appears that, ultimately, it will be up to the workers themselves to figure out the answer.

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