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Should We Be Dining Out Right Now?

This week on Eater’s Digest, critic Ryan Sutton discusses the ethics of dining out in a pandemic

Several people sitting at tables outside of a restaurant in the night with yellow lights illuminating the space Gary He/Eater

This week on Eater’s Digest, we talk to our colleague and restaurant critic Ryan Sutton about why he’s not eating out right now. Ryan’s take: The health and safety guidelines in New York, where he lives, are not strict enough to make him feel like it’s a safe for the diners or the restaurant workers. Amanda’s take: Some restaurant situations are safer than others, and there are ways to dine outdoors safely in certain cities.

After that conversation, we talk to Eater LA’s editor Matthew Kang about moldgate at hit restaurant Sqirl, hear about how scared Dublin’s diners and restaurateurs are of the Texans that have been streaming into town of late, and discuss other big stories from the week.

Listen and subscribe to Eater’s Digest on Apple Podcasts and read the full transcript of our conversation with Ryan Sutton below.

Amanda Kludt:

Tell us about the big major reasons why you don’t feel comfortable yet dining outside, or of course, inside a restaurant.

Ryan Sutton:

Great question. And you’re right, I haven’t dined out since the beginning of the pandemic. And I think like a lot of people, outdoor dining and even indoor dining seemed like a very real possibility to me, for a while. And then one of the big things that happened, of course, over the past few months is the viral resurgence across the country, which has a lot of us worried. And the fact that deaths are still upticking throughout the country. So, that’s one big reason.

It’s almost a bromide to state at this point that viruses don’t stop at borders. We all know that. But it’s all the more pressing and true in a world where, again, 7,000 Americans have died already. The other kind of more short term or structural reason why I’m not dining out just yet, is that I just don’t believe that New York has as strict health requirements as it could or should, when you look through the state guidance. I believe and I truly believe that diners should be able to or should have to wear masks while they’re not actively eating or drinking, while they’re sitting at the tables. And currently in the legislation or the regulations you don’t have to do that. You look at any restaurant, the second you sit down, people take off their masks. And that’s not fair to the waiters.

A couple of other things in terms of the rules, you’re not required to leave your contact information in case contact tracers end up needing it. I think that could change. Neither employees nor diners, I believe, have to take mandatory temperature screenings according to the state. I think that should be mandatory as well. And of course, there’s just the state of testing. It just takes like a week, sometimes, to get a test back. They’re not widespread enough and they’re not mandatory on a regular basis for restaurant workers.

So again, I’m not saying that I’m not going to eat outside again until there’s a vaccine. But I like to think that we could and maybe should wait until the surge decreases a little bit. And New York does a better job at creating more uniform regulations for everyone.

AK:

Right. So do you take into account, if you were deciding to eat in different, let’s say you did live in different areas, do you think it is a more of a moral choice to do it in New York, where cases are down, versus, obviously, in like Orlando or Los Angeles right now?

RS:

I think you just made the argument right there, Amanda. Absolutely. Again, while I’m not doing this just yet, dining out, either indoors or outdoors, I have no doubt that if you are a person who’s ready for this and you’re willing to take those risks or put others at risk, I know that sounds awful; but I would say that New York is probably a better place to dine outdoors than a few other places in the country. And the reason I say that is because again, because our viral load right now is so low.

I go on to the New York positive test site every day. I think right now New York positive tests are coming back at a ratio of like 1.3% on a day or a three day or a seven day basis, whatever they use. So things are okay in New York. That’s not to say that you can predict whether one person from California is going to come here and decide to eat out. Even though the California people are supposed to be under a 14 day quarantine, that’s tough to enforce. But that said, if you were to go out, I like to think that New York city is a better place to do it than, quite frankly, few other places in the country.

AK:

Right. Well, I mean, there are places if you look at the map, you see some places where they don’t really have a lot of cases. Like where I was in New Hampshire, the area had had no cases, but then I think you can lead to this complacency. And the mask wearing there was very lax. So you could go to a restaurant and people just... The restaurants were behaving themselves but so many of the people just did not want to be doing it. And we hear about this all over the country. And I think it is so case by case in terms of the region and even the restaurant as to how safe or unsafe you’re going to be.

RS:

And it’s always heartwarming to hear about restaurants that are being more aggressive than what federal laws require. I’ve heard cases of restaurants that are doing temperature screenings anyway, for both employees and for guests as well. And I think that’s a positive development. And it shows those restaurants care about our larger society, which is hugely important.

AK:

Yeah. I think with temperature checks. My take is you’re not going to go out if you have a fever, but I think it does signal this level of care and responsibility that, “We take this very seriously. We are doing this thing every day.” And it makes the employees think about it every day. It makes the diner think about like, “Remember we are not just playing around here. This is not just entertainment. This is real.”

RS:

Precisely. First of all, I agree with you. You’re probably not going to go outside if you have a fever. But I won’t lie, as someone who has dealt with this as a few of us have, sometimes you simply don’t know. I remember when I had COVID-19 back in March, I was walking around one day and I thought I was perfectly fine. Then I bought a thermometer and it said 101.

AK:

Wow.

RS:

A little bit of a fever. And I think that was just because my temperature had been so high in the previous days that a 101 fever to me, didn’t even register.

Daniel Geneen:

Yeah.

AK:

Right.

RS:

That was a signal to me that I should stay inside and continue to consume Gatorade en masse, which I did.

DG:

Wow.

AK:

That’s a good point too, that you had it because since I had it, I feel like a little bit of a, not a free pass, I’m still behaving myself, but I feel a little less stressed about the idea of getting someone else sick. And I think it’s important that you said you’ve written that you went through it. It was awful. You don’t want to, I don’t know, have any bit of risk of bringing this kind of thing to anyone else.

RS:

Yeah. And I won’t lie, Amanda, like you, maybe in the weeks after, and let the record state, I didn’t even know I truly had it until maybe a month or two after, when it was confirmed via antibody test. But I did, right after I felt like I had a bit of a free pass. But then again, we have to realize that we’re not epidemiologists, we’re journalists. And excuse the term, but we don’t know what we don’t know.

And it would be... One of the things I think about a lot is that as a food critic, am I setting the right example for other people, either as a food critic or as a food reporter. And if I decided to go out because I’ve already had COVID and because I think I can’t do that again and because people know publicly that I’ve had COVID, would that create a license for other people to take that same risk? So I’m trying to be extra careful about what type of license I give people. Because as the saying goes, the president doesn’t wear masks, his followers don’t wear masks. And in as much as we are food writers and we give recommendations, people see us and people will follow our own takes as well. So we all of course needed to be extra careful about that.

DG:

Amanda, I hate to put you on the spot here, but as Ryan says that obviously he’s had it, but yet he feels a responsibility as a public figure in the dining community, in the food world, to, I guess, lead by example. Do you feel like there is pressure on you even as someone that does have the antibodies to make a statement through publicly not eating at restaurants or are you just...?

AK:

Let’s see. I feel pressure as someone who writes and talks about food a lot to think through my decisions, for sure. I don’t feel pressure that I have to not eat at restaurants. And the morality police is going to come get me. I think what I can do is as someone who is eating out, model safer behavior and model a middle ground...I think a lot of times with COVID there’s this binary point of view of staying inside is safe, going out is unsafe. And I think there’s a sliding scale. And there is a way to be more responsible while also getting a little back into, not a normal life, but a different life.

DG:

Yeah.

AK:

So I’ve seen a lot of hybrid operations, where you order at the window, almost the same interaction you’d have if the stuff is takeout. But then you get to go sit and eat it outside, which is kind of like a step up from me eating it in the park.

DG:

Yeah.

AK:

But maybe I have access to bathroom in case I drink a little too much.

DG:

Nice.

AK:

And then there are restaurants that are waiter service, but everyone is being very good about the masks and that’s a little more risky. And then you see these pictures from out in New York where people are just totally going hog-wild.

DG:

Yeah. And partying.

AK:

Really partying. And so I think there is a spectrum of behaviors and ways that you can fit yourself in there. But I will say that my position on it evolves, the more I read about it. Because Gary He, on Eater New York, has been doing interviews with servers and talking to them and hearing how so many of them don’t really feel safe.

DG:

Right.

AK:

And talking to restaurant owners in my neighborhood and asking them like, “How are your employees feeling? How are you feeling?” And so my position on this is not strict and might wobble as I learn more.

DG:

Right.

RS:

I think we’re all learning more and I think what you said was incredibly nuanced. And there is a spectrum of behaviors. And I’m also glad you brought up Gary He’s excellent reporting for Eater New York, in which we learned that a lot of waiters wish they could be staying home, earning their $600 per week, pandemic unemployment assistance checks. But sometimes they get called back and sometimes they’re ineligible, of course, because they’re undocumented. And that’s a whole another debate. And all fingers crossed, that those checks will continue throughout the rest of the year. But of course, that’s up to Congress and a much more complicated scenario.

RS:

But if I can also bring up one more point, Amanda. You brought up the issue of what do we make of institutions or restaurants that are essentially takeout, but have tables outside, where there’s no wait service. And I, in my opinion, I haven’t done it yet, but I probably will. That is something I would feel comfortable with.

AK:

Right. That’s like the next step.

RS:

Yeah. And I think the Contra and Wildair guys are doing that. And that’s something I’m pretty stoked to try out.

DG:

So Ryan, you wrote us a piece, I think, outlining a lot of this, why this restaurant critic isn’t dining out right now. I hate to reduce the reaction to this piece, but I felt like at least in the media world, this was pretty well accepted as the consensus amongst other prominent critics in the country. What was the reaction like from people that work in restaurants and people that own restaurants?

RS:

About what you could expect. That was their reaction. I had some... I don’t want to name names. I could think of a chef and or general manager or two who are publicly unhappy with some of the things I wrote. And I understand that. Everyone’s trying to make a living. And there are a lot of good actors out there who are trying to look out for their stance.

The flip side is I heard from a lot of people who are waiters and who are restaurant industry folks, who wish viewpoints like this continued to be promulgated throughout the country, because they want to stay home and they want to keep earning their unemployment checks. When people sign up for the restaurant industry, they didn’t expect to be signing up for a job where they could reasonably get killed as if they were joining the military or the police or firefighters. They were simply hoping to earn a living for themselves and for their families. And I think those people in the industry, and people who have been emailing me, are seriously worried about their lives and livelihoods, in addition to worrying about the future of the industry, which they care about both economically and culturally. And so that would be the overwhelming response [crosstalk 00:12:44]. The things I’ve heard of people who have touched base with me.

RS:

But I’ve also heard from [inaudible 00:12:42] and people who are not on full salary who disagree with me. These are complicated issues upon which reasonable people disagree. And no one has a monopoly on either the economic truth or the moral truth. We’re all trying to responsibly think about these issues out loud.

AK:

Well, and it’s so interesting because the government is not stepping in and setting the rule of like, “Okay, you’ll have to shut down and we’re going to pay you.” Like in other countries, they paid the businesses to shut down and they’re paying the employees. It puts the obligation on the owners and on the staffers, and then on us, to make these decisions that I feel like we should not be having to make at this moment.

RS:

100%. And the decision to have people stay at home, especially waiters, would be so much easier if there was a better federal program to subsidize or bailout, for lack of a better term, restaurant owners and landlords. It’s easy to demonize landlords. A lot of them are just small family businesses that are hurting as much as anyone else. And yet the chief government lifeline, it’s a small business and known as the Paycheck Protection Program. The central theme of that program is to keep people on payrolls and employed, which is precisely the opposite of what we want during a devastating pandemic, either one of those people to stay at home.

And so we have some serious structural issues with government and aid, both in terms of the way that program was designed. And the fact that it’s only tied, the program, you can’t get more than two and a half months of payroll. That’s how much of the loan you can get. And hopefully if you do the right things, the loan turns into a grant. That’s not a whole lot. That’s two and a half months for a pandemic and restaurant and bar shutdowns that are stretching much longer than that. And when they designed that program, people didn’t think that indoor dining would be completely shut down in certain States for the indefinite future. We don’t know when that’s coming back.

And so that’s hugely economically devastating to small business owners who are trying to restart these establishments that are vital hubs of the community. So yes, there’s a health and moral component, but [crosstalk 00:14:54] there’s also that cultural and societal component of trying to restart society. And they’re also looking out for their own economic health, so a lot of these small business owners.

So yeah, there’s no one right or easy answer, but things would be a lot better if the government spent a little more time talking to restaurants when designing these programs.

DG:

How much are you thinking about the division between outdoor dining and indoor dining? Because for me, that seems like the barrier that a lot of the States that are in huge trouble have crossed, right? Even States that opened at minimal capacity, 25, 50%, it feels like allowing people to congregate inside is a signal that let’s big parties happen and let’s big kind of bar exchanges happen.

AK:

Well and also, just the greater danger of indoor dining, even if people aren’t partying inside just that it can spread there in a way that it’s not going to outside.

DG:

Yeah. And interesting, like in a perfect world, it seems to be the case that 25% capacity indoors with safe distancing would be okay, but that specifically seems like an impossible thing to enforce. Therefore, it seems to me that the boundary between the in and the out is where a lot of States have had to make the hard and fast rule. And I feel like to me makes sense as a place to draw the line.

RS:

I think it makes a lot of sense. And we also learned recently that it’s possible that this virus is truly airborne. Again, we’re not epidemiologists or virologists and we can’t prove that, but a lot of scientists recently sent a letter to the World Health Organization, arguing for more recognition of the possibility of airborne transmission. And one of the big cases that the scientists cite is the fact of a restaurant. We all saw the diagrams of the restaurant and people who are sitting at tables reasonably far apart from one another, got infected because apparently, according to these scientists, droplets of the virus can remain in the air for a certain period of time. So who knows if social distancing in itself, six feet or one meter or whatever you want to call it, is enough in itself.

AK:

Yeah. I just don’t see how indoor dining and bars that are inside can reopen until there’s a vaccine, if this is true. And it seems the evidence is mounting.

RS:

And if that’s true, what does that say about the federal government’s lack of response to giving more aid? Because if this huge portion of our economy is going to remain more or less closed for the unforeseeable future, then we’re going to continue to see hundreds of thousands, if not millions of restaurants and restaurant workers, continue to be unemployed and they need help and they need help now.

AK:

Well, thank you so much, RS, for talking to us about this important thing. I think it’s on the minds of most of our listeners. So I love to hash it out. And please enjoy a nice, relaxing week on vacation. And we’ll see you soon.

RS:

Thanks, Amanda. Thanks, Dan. I’ll see you guys soon.

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