In a pandemic, when the whole world’s been turned upside down, everyone’s seeking clear-cut answers: What’s healthy? What’s unsafe? Where can I go? What’s allowed and what’s not? Unfortunately, nothing is so simple — especially when it comes to dining.
We know restaurants and bars (and coffee shops and food courts and concession stands...) took a seismic hit when they had to close, making the ability to reopen to varying degrees theoretically a lifesaver. And yet reopening has not been smooth or clear-cut for restaurants, leading diners to ask the question: Should we support local restaurants and workers by dining out — or is that a threat on their lives, the lives of fellow diners, and our own?
Eater NY chief critic Ryan Sutton and Eater editors Gabe Guarente of Eater Seattle and Amy McCarthy of Eater Dallas and Eater Houston came together for our Eater Talks event series, to discuss various factors diners may consider when deciding to eat out at restaurants. Below are lightly edited excerpts from their conversation, moderated by director of editorial strategy Sonia Chopra, as well as a full video recording of the talk.
On the one hand, takeout alone won’t sustain most restaurant businesses.
Gabe Guarente, editor of Eater Seattle: “At least one chef has told me takeout sales in generally kind of tapered off [since the start of the pandemic], and he thinks it’s just fatigue from the novelty of certain takeout like meal kits. But it could also be people who are tightening up their budgets or getting into a rhythm with home cooking. There’s a sense among several chefs that relying solely on takeout is difficult to sustain for a good amount of time. They weren’t banking on this going much longer than five or six months, so what will happen if they’re still not open and the pandemic is still raging here? A lot of them could be in trouble, and we’ll probably see more high-profile closings.”
On the other hand, dining out at a restaurant is risky — and usually more so for others than for you.
Ryan Sutton, chief critic of Eater NY: “It comes down to diners taking the necessary steps to protect not just themselves but their service staffers, whom they love and they want to go out to see. So if you’re at a restaurant and you want to go do this, man, just keep your mask on while you’re not sipping on your drink or you don’t have a plate of linguine with clam sauce in front of you. There need to be more actions on the part of diners...
“I like to think there’s a micro, or individual, level to the decision: I don’t want to put a single waiter’s life at risk for what’s essentially a leisure activity. Fluke tartare with quinoa and strawberries is not worth someone’s life.”
Guarente: “In general, people should just be cognizant about how their actions affect others. Sometimes diners see it through the lens of, ‘Am I safe by dining out?’ But really, you’re jeopardizing other people when you go out.”
It’s not just restaurant workers who are vulnerable to COVID-19.
Guarente: “In Washington, there was an alarming statistic that 43 percent of all confirmed cases at one point were of Latinx people, even though they represent just 13 percent of the population, and a lot of those were farm workers who did not have many protections at all. So when we talk about reopening, we have to look at the supply chain too and how that affects vulnerable communities.”
Restaurants aren’t being given proper guidance on how to operate safely.
Amy McCarthy, editor of Eater Dallas and Eater Houston: “Whether that’s on the federal level or on the state level, there has to be a comprehensive set of guidelines that is based in fact, based in science, that indicates exactly how restaurants are supposed to implement these protocols.”
Guarente: “The guidelines need to be clearer. Sometimes there’s just no specifics on what happens when an employee tests positive for COVID-19; [in Washington] there’s no rule that says they have to shut down, no rule that says they have to inform the public. So restaurants have been kind of playing it by ear, and lots of these guidelines are open to interpretation. ... The first thing lawmakers need to do is make these guidelines clearer and more accessible. Once you do that, for restaurants, that takes the onus off them to be policing these regulations.”
The health regulations that do exist often tilt in favor of diner safety over worker safety.
Sutton: “Government regulations especially in New York and NYC seem to favor, in my opinion, protecting diners more than staffers. And this makes sense from a strict numbers perspective; there’s always going to be more diners in a rest than staffers and inasmuch as we want to prevent this disease from spreading, we’re going to have to focus on the bigger number. But from a moral standpoint, to have those regulations that protect diners over staffers is horrific.
“If you’re in a NYC restaurant and you’re sitting outside, if the tables happen to be closer than six feet between one another, you have to have partitions, which makes sense. Often restaurants outside will use these huge glass sneeze guards if two tables are pretty close to another. But if you’re a staffer working in a kitchen, you’re allowed to work closer than six feet next to one another, you just have to wear a mask, you don’t need a sneeze guard. That’s a bit of a double standard.
“Here’s another double standard: [In New York] you can’t mandate contact tracing for diners, it’s only optional; you also can’t mandate temperature checks for diners, even though you can mandate it as a restaurant for waiters and other types of staffers. So you have waiters and staffers who are going through all these elaborate things to protect themselves, but diners are coming in willy-nilly and they don’t have to be screened. So that’s a strong double standard that I think conveys that the government cares more about commerce and people spending money and people eating than the people working there. And that in itself is a huge moral dilemma.”
McCarthy: “On both state and federal levels, lawmakers are pushing for indemnification laws that will prevent these businesses from being liable for making people come to work and exposing them to something that could potentially kill them. In an industry where people don’t have health insurance by and large, wages are stagnant, and there’s so little federal assistance for people in this industry, it’s unconscionable to go out because you need a cocktail and put someone who isn't even going to be able to sue their employer for not following workplace safety guidelines [at risk].”
Sutton: “And no one really knows whether you can successfully sue a restaurant, regardless of business liability laws, because remember: COVID is pretty hard to track. How does one know that you got COVID by working at the restaurant and not by commuting 45 minutes from a part of Queens to Manhattan?”
Even if they know the guidelines, many restaurants are on their own to self-regulate.
McCarthy: “Right now, it’s very much based on the honor system. Restaurants are going public voluntarily, letting people know what they’re doing to stop the spread of the virus; but for every restaurant that goes public with a COVID-19 case in their restaurant and then closes down for two weeks to clean, there are five restaurants that aren’t doing that.”
Sutton: “Should the restaurant industry be trusted with self-policing from a health or medical perspective? And I think the obvious answer is no... Of any industry in the United States, the restaurant industry is the biggest violator of wage laws. So the question I have is: If the industry is such a huge and notorious violator of these wage laws, which just relates to paying someone a fair wage, can they be trusted with much more complex health laws and regulations? The answer for me is no.”
Having to enforce health regulations is risky business for restaurants.
McCarthy: “[The politicized nature of the pandemic] has created this situation where restaurant workers... are responsible for making sure that people who come into these businesses are wearing masks, and the people who are very opposed to wearing masks can get violent. I think that puts these workers in a very, very bad position.
“It’s unfair that restaurants are having to make these decisions, because that’s not their expertise; this is what public health experts are for, and this is why our government officials should be listening to medical professionals and what they have to say.”
A sick restaurant worker often means a temporary shutter — and the loss of thousands of dollars.
Guarente: “If people are feeling like they need to support local restaurants but if they go to the restaurant without a mask or they infect someone, if they know that could lead to a shutdown of the restaurant that would cost tens of thousands of dollars — they might think twice before trying to support a restaurant just by showing up and dining out in person.”
A better way to support the restaurant industry and its workers? Government relief that helps them stay home and not work.
McCarthy: “We’ve culturally boxed ourselves into just two options for restaurants. The options are: Open and put people at risk, or stay closed and put yourself at risk. But there really are more options than that; it’s just that governments aren’t considering them. We could pay business owners to keep their doors closed — that could be a thing. We could pay restaurant workers to stay at home, even though that’s something that people like Ted Cruz are very sketchy about, people being paid to sit at home instead of going back to work. But we know that people staying home is going to reduce the cases of this virus in the public... And by acting like the choice is open or go out of business, we put restaurants in a really bad place, one where they have to be self-interested.
“We’re looking at the situation not considering the fact that government intervention is what has to happen — there has to be rent relief, there has to be health insurance coverage for people who get sick. Until there is, there’s just going to be this ongoing, ad hoc process and the result of that is more COVID.”
Sutton: “I’d like to think that by dining out, I’m getting more people back to work — when in a sense, people should be staying at home because they should be able to afford to do so with enhanced unemployment that’s out right now.”
Watch the entire panel conversation: