As restaurants reopen throughout the country and the world in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurant owners face a mind-boggling array of challenges, from byzantine new regulations to hiring back staff to navigating PPP loans. And the pandemic is still only just beginning. No one knows what will happen after reopening, or if it’s even safe to do so. It’s very possible — even likely! — that COVID cases will spike as more people dine out, and restaurants may have to shut down again. Into this yawning black hole of uncertainty, food distributor US Foods is here to help with a free reopening kit.
On the surface, this sounds like a good thing. US Foods is one of the biggest food distributors in the U.S., selling raw materials and pre-made food items (tempura shrimp and bacon jam are two of their latest). After enduring months of losses or outright closure, their struggling customers would likely welcome, say, free cleaning products, abundant masks, or even staples like rice or cooking oil. Formal guidance on pandemic safety from an existing supplier would also make sense; similar guides from industry organizations and the CDC alike have proliferated, in part thanks so slow rollout of official government guides. On their website, US Foods promises that they’re here to support restaurants “wherever you are on your journey to rebound and reopen,” and describes the kit as designed to “help you safely reopen your doors.” It’s free to any independent restaurant group with less than 10 locations.
The reopening kit does contain masks, which public heath experts consider a key tool for controlling the spread of COVID-19 — a box of 50, which might last a small restaurant a few days and a larger one maybe one night. The rest of the reopening kit, however, is just a bunch of signs. A poster reads “We are Open for Dine-In — Join Us!”; a door decal displaying a hand and faucet proclaims “We are Keeping It Clean and Safe For All”; five red, circular decals encourage patrons to stand six feet apart; a little pop-up sign declares the restaurant supports social distancing. The reopening kit isn’t designed for safety — it’s a marketing tool.
Boiling down “reopening” to “slapping up signs about safety” is at least consistent with how America has handled the pandemic that has killed over a hundred thousand of our fellow citizens so far. The signs might help restaurant owners draw more customers into their doors, at a time when restaurants need to attract business. They might even encourage patrons and staff alike to behave more cautiously. But that’s a big if — signs won’t keep those owners, or their employees, or those customers any safer from contracting COVID-19. Besides the masks, the most helpful thing US Foods includes is a “reopening blueprint,” a pamphlet which offers advice on setting up systems for separating out staff into different roles and increasing cleaning regimens. It does not contain any information about whether these measures will help fight COVID-19 specifically — instead, it focuses on creating an appearance of safety for customers. Several of the guidelines also (maybe inadvertently) reinforce the class and often racial hierarchies of restaurant labor, by urging restaurants to “seal” the back of the house and put bussers and other cleaning positions in different uniforms than the service staff.
On Tuesday, June 2, after a weekend of uprisings against police violence against black Americans, a sea of black squares took over Instagram, ostensibly in support of Black Lives Matter. Instead, the squares flooded the #blacklivesmatter hashtag, with an overall effect of drowning out more uncomfortable messages for the comfort of signalling allyship and saying nothing at all. In other words, it was marketing. The uncomfortable conversation here is that reopening restaurants — especially dining room — while COVID-19 is still actively spreading in a city or state will lead to more cases, more hospitalizations, more deaths. It’s likely already happening. No reopening kit will change that, though abundant free masks and cleaning supplies could certainly have helped. Instead, some restaurant owners will chose to put up signs, signalling safety and saying nothing. And as food orders roll out alongside those free kits, US Foods will reap the profits.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent