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Who Are We Reopening For?

Reopening restaurant dining rooms still puts customers and employees at risk. So why is it happening?

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Jaya Saxena is a Correspondent at, and the series editor of Best American Food and Travel Writing. She explores wide ranging topics like labor, identity, and food culture.

I dream of eating in restaurants. Literally, I have woken up and burst into tears because a few sweet moments earlier I was in public with no mask on, shaking the hand of a familiar waiter, hugging friends as we meet at a new place one of us wanted to try, or just waiting for my partner at the bar with a book. As the weeks of isolation march on, the gravitational pull of public life feels ever stronger. And as more states either reopen or flirt with reopening, it’s tempting to think these fantasies are just around the corner.

Many states are advertising that fantasy as the truth. In all but a handful of states, it is now legal or will soon be legal to once again operate dine-in services at restaurants. Of states that have allowed that, many require restaurants to operate at a limited capacity or only allow outdoor dining, but by the end of May, it is likely that eating at a restaurant will once again be available to much of the country. And what’s more, that official encouragement has led to a general “fuck it” attitude. The Washington Post reports that in Avalon, a wealthy development of restaurants and stores in Georgia, people are thrilled to be dining out again without masks. “The wineries are opening this weekend for indoor service and we’re going there tomorrow,” crowed one retiree a few weeks ago. “I can’t wait!”

These reopenings are based on the acceptance of unnecessary sickness and death. An internal report from the Trump administration, which is pressuring states to “reopen” businesses, projects a steady rise in the death toll from COVID-19, resulting in 3,000 deaths a day by June 1. In a leaked phone call, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who recently allowed restaurants to reopen their dining rooms, admitted “the fact of the matter is pretty much every scientific and medical report shows that when you have a reopening... it actually will lead to an increase and spread” of the new coronavirus.

Abbott was correct. Cases are climbing in most states that have allowed for reopening. In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp has come under fire for releasing misleading data, and we ultimately won’t know for weeks about spread. Countless studies and reports from medical institutes and experts say it’s too soon, that reopened business and a rise in mobility will undo the already meager progress we’ve made in flattening the curve of the pandemic. Dr. Anthony Fauci warns of “needless suffering and death.” And yet, the government on both the local and federal levels insist this is the only way; people need to work, they say, the economy needs to keep moving, and everyone needs to feel a sense of normalcy.

Even more cautious states are gearing up to reopen soon. Yet there’s no vaccine; the curve, while breaking, has not been flattened; and there is no cure. While white-collar workers in many places will work from home until the end of the year, everyone else, nearly 70 percent of all workers, is on the front line. But this potential for suffering is needless. Our governments and the general desire to get “back to normal” has created an environment in which service workers must make the choice between their health and their safety, and where an individual’s choice to forego a mask at a cafe could affect dozens. Food service workers are being asked to repeatedly expose themselves to harm, and for what? So the rest of us can eat food in a dining room again?

Some restaurants have been making things work under regulations that limit service to takeout and delivery, whether or not they have received Paycheck Protection Program loans. Loosened alcohol sale laws provide an extra source of revenue, and many have begun selling produce and meat along with prepared food. Some restaurants are trying to adapt their businesses to a “new normal” in which they are allowed to (or compelled to) reopen, but cannot safely resume operations as they were before, and some are refusing to reopen until it is safe. Some are even trying to close, which comes with its own exorbitant costs. But many restaurants are weighing the risk of reopening dining rooms and the reality that their business models just wouldn’t work in the long run with takeout as their only source of income.

Tony Harper, a bartender at the Fairmont Hotel in Austin, says he feels lucky his company has decided to stay closed until June 1. “We all know May 1 [was] too early,” he says. “I can’t be truly thrilled until we have this contained and don’t have to work our way around the virus for employment.” He also speculates there may not be much work for him anyway. Though Texas has allowed restaurants to reopen their dining rooms at limited capacity and their patios at full capacity, many diners are trepidatious about eating out. Texas’s first open weekend was quiet, with just 16 percent of people in Austin saying they’d be willing to immediately return to restaurants. And despite economic hardship, a poll shows 71 percent of Americans think it’s a bad idea to reopen restaurants and bars. “I don’t really feel the pressure [to go back to work] because honestly the service industry is going to be down for a minute,” says Harper, “so there’s no point in diving back into what, at this point, is still a dangerous situation.”

Starbucks also announced that it would reopen 90 percent of its locations by early June, with select stores allowing customers inside. Though the company said it will emphasize “entryway hand-off” and cashless payments, employees are saying it’s too early. In March, thousands of Starbucks workers signed a petition to close all locations, writing that continuing to stay open would put both customers and employees at risk. Now, more employees are signing the petition in protest of the recent reopenings. In the comment section, some write that they live with health care workers and are at risk of spreading the virus, or aren’t able to find child care.

Hermia* was concerned when, on May 7, she arrived at her Starbucks location in Atlanta to prepare for reopening the next day. “Most people didn’t come in with their own masks,” she said, “and the ones provided by Starbucks are I think literally T-shirts that someone cut out.” She says the store’s layout makes it impossible to keep six feet apart from her coworkers at all times, and that if she can’t guarantee everyone will be taking the new sanitation measures seriously, she’ll be exposing herself. Even if every employee follows protocol, there are still customers to deal with. “Starbucks is a little bit more expensive than our competitors, and I feel like at that price point people get a little pushy,” she said. “People are never on their best behavior at Starbucks.” There have already been reports of customers harassing workers when they’ve been asked to wear masks, and in general, reopening puts workers in the position of having to enforce public health practices.

Rebecca, another Starbucks worker in Tennessee, wasn’t comfortable going into work back in March, before Starbucks made the decision to close. So she chose to take the company’s catastrophe pay and wait it out. But now, she says she’s still not safe, and is declining to return to work at Starbucks. “I don’t feel comfortable returning to work because I’ve been seeing a lot of statistics about how the United States is not where it needs to be in terms of testing,” she said. “I think the purpose of reopening the economy… that should be to help people. If people are willing to sacrifice human lives to make human lives better, that just seems like nonsense to me.”

Rebecca’s husband still has full-time employment, so she can afford, at least for now, to say no to work. But for others, the ability to make money is the primary determinant of returning to work, regardless of fears about health, something which activists and labor experts have been critical of. Damon A. Silvers, the director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO, called states reopening (and sometimes setting up ways to report people who choose not to return to work) “the choice to endanger your life or starve.”

“I would not be there if it weren’t for the money,” says Hermia. In April, unemployment reached 14.7 percent, over 20 million people, the highest postwar number ever recorded, with 5.5 million of those jobs coming from food and drinking services. “I can’t really afford to go on a leave of absence. I keep thinking about how many people have lost their jobs... I’m fine now, but then when I’m not fine, will I be able to find a job?” Harper also says that, while he doesn’t feel the need to return to work yet, the clock is ticking. “With quarantine you are limited, so I’m not spending much. With that being said, [my finances are] only coming close to balancing due to the additional $600” a week he is receiving from the CARES Act, which runs out on July 31.

For many, unemployment insurance has been nearly impossible to obtain in the first place. “The Florida unemployment was an absolute nightmare,” said Paul Pecor, who recently returned to work at Marker 88 in Islamorada in the Florida Keys. The unemployment website kept crashing, and due to a glitch in the system, he was told he was ineligible for insurance and had to reapply. After seven weeks, he still has not received a check. “That’s why I made the decision to return to work and depend on me and not the state,” he said. But he recognizes that if the unemployment option were there, things might be different. “That’s the other issue a lot of businesses are facing: the difficulties of finding employees that want to return to work versus making more money collecting unemployment, and in the same respect staying safe.”

Some have argued that despite the worry and the uncertainty, reopening business is an “acceptable risk” in some places. And it’s true that there are places where reopening looks more feasible. Pecor says he does feel safe at work, because Islamorada has a specific setup. The two roads that lead to the island chain have been blocked, so only those who live or work on the islands can get through. The restaurant seating is outdoors, six feet apart, and he trusts his coworkers to keep things clean. However, that doesn’t mean he thinks it’s the best idea. “We are far from out of the woods,” he says, and acknowledges it could be a whole different story when the state decides to open those roads back up on June 1. “I understand people’s frustrations and wanting to get back to some norm, to get back to work so they can feed their family… But if this virus happens to spike again, then it was all for nothing, and it will be twice as hard to reopen again.”

There’s no guarantee that, say, Harper will be able to walk into his bar next week and feel fine. Viruses don’t adhere to human calendars, and for your average person doomscrolling through the news, it is nearly impossible to intuit what “safe” will feel like, especially as the government goes to great lengths to keep information about the pandemic from getting out. Experts tell the New York Times that benchmarks like quality of hospital care, widespread testing, and a sustained reduction of cases must be met before things will be safer.

Some states have implemented these measurements to determine when businesses can reopen, as well as phases of that process so hundreds of people don’t rush into a crowded music venue on day one. The U.S. is still woefully behind when it comes to testing, and the jury is still out as to whether having COVID-19 antibodies means one can’t become infected again or pass the virus to others. If we had adequate testing, more knowledge of how COVID-19 antibodies work, and the proper resources given to hospitals, the path to reopening would be clearer. But even then, experts say the metrics we have been relying on are faulty, and that there is no “magic number” that will tell us when it is safe to resume life as it was. “The numbers don’t tell you what the system really looks like,” Bruce Y. Lee, a professor of health policy and management at the City University of New York School of Public Health, told HuffPo. “I don’t know of a single state that’s ready to reopen.”

The problem is the question is being presented not as “when will the pandemic be under control?” but rather “when can we start making money again?” That framing puts the wellbeing of business over the wellbeing of people, to already confounding results. It’s pretty clear that where dining rooms have reopened, safety measures often exist in direct opposition to how a restaurant is supposed to operate. I mean, how is one supposed to eat with a mask on? Either you have situations like the one at C&C Coffee and Kitchen in Colorado, which opened its doors for Mother’s Day in defiance of the governor’s “Safer at Home” order, packing the restaurant with hundreds of people, with few masks in sight. Or you have places asking you to eat next to mannequins or behind shower curtains. When I fantasize about being back in a restaurant, these half measures are not what I picture. This is in no way getting “back to normal.”

Reports keep emerging of places where people are convinced the virus will never come for them, where they are sure it was all overblown in the first place, or at least that it’s not so serious that they have to wear a mask while sitting at a table with their family. That desire is so relatable: The days are getting longer, summer is in the air, and we’ve been inside for two months already — if you could convince yourself it was okay, that the worst was over, you probably would too. The fantasy is much easier and nicer to live in than the present. And for many, the fantasy is the only means to a paycheck. But living as if it’s “normal” does not make it so. Instead, if we want to be able to safely eat in a restaurant again, we must continue living as if we’re in a pandemic. If only that were the easy choice to make.