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‘When We Get Back to Work After This, What’s Going to Change?’

One year into the pandemic, restaurant workers are exhausted, anxious, and feel both exploited and expendable

Illustration of a masked and visor-wearing server surrounded by maskless and laughing patrons.

When the coronavirus arrived in the U.S. last winter, Abby, a Starbucks barista in Lexington, Kentucky, panicked. (Abby asked that her last name be withheld to protect her job.) “I’m asthmatic, a germaphobe, and too scared of giving COVID to loved ones, so it’s not a great combination,” she tells me. Luckily for Abby, Starbucks offered her, and its employees across the country, paid leave until early May. When the paid-leave period ended, Abby had to return to work even though case counts in her community were still on the rise.

Almost a year into the pandemic, Kentucky regularly reports more than 1,000 COVID-19 cases per day — far more than when Abby was on leave. Somehow, though, she’s less nervous than she was at the beginning of the pandemic, even though she’s had to quarantine due to exposure to COVID. “I think I’ve grown a little bit more comfortable with the circumstances, which is kind of awful to say,” she says. “We’re almost a year into this, so I feel like we all know what to do to keep ourselves safe as best we can.”

A year ago, public health experts were encouraging us to stay home to flatten the curve. Twelve months, 12 million confirmed infections, and more than 500,000 deaths later, and the pandemic still seems to have no end in sight. Even with mass vaccinations on the horizon, ultra-contagious new variants are now spreading in the U.S. Meanwhile, local and state governments are easing COVID restrictions. Food service workers like Abby have largely resigned themselves to the current situation: They’re exhausted, anxious, and feel both exploited and expendable. They also have no choice but to go back to work.

Maggie Slepian, a barista and freelance writer in Montana, was only out of work for a few weeks during the spring of 2020. The state started reopening in May 2020, meaning she and her coworkers no longer qualified for unemployment for COVID-related closures. “If you want to make money, you have to go in and face these people — a lot of whom want to fight with you, and a lot of whom are refusing to wear masks — and you’re at risk,” she says. She’s been back to work for almost a year now, and she’s been arguing with customers nearly every day in that time. Food service workers across the country are making the same calculus, weighing the risks to their health against the realities of financial instability. On top of that, many say customers are making their jobs harder by refusing to wear masks or follow basic safety protocols.

“The indoor dining thing is really stressing me out,” says Katie, a pastry chef in New York City who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym so she could speak freely about her employment status. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo allowed indoor dining to reopen at 25 percent capacity in mid-February despite outcry from public health experts and concern over the new, more contagious variants of the virus. “I get that Cuomo wants to stimulate the economy, get some tax dollars coming in,” Katie says, but she doesn’t think restaurant workers should be asked to sacrifice their health in order for that to happen. “To put the pressure on [restaurants] to reopen when it’s still quite risky, so we can bring back your economy, it feels unfair.”

A November study by researchers at Stanford University found that indoor dining is particularly risky for both patrons and workers. According to the study, restaurants are four times riskier than gyms and coffee shops when it comes to COVID-19 spread. Keeping a six-foot distance between tables may not be enough, either: In South Korea, where community spread is relatively low, a woman was infected by a restaurant patron who was seated more than 20 feet away.

The Brooklyn restaurant where Katie works has been closed since last spring. She told me she’s been working odd jobs since then to make ends meet. Her income has come from bake sales, individual orders, and helping other restaurants with takeout. “When I think back to the first few months [of the pandemic], I’m like, ‘Wow, I was not okay.’ I was emotionally not okay,” she told me. “I’m speaking from a place of privilege. I didn’t lose my apartment; I was able to afford the groceries I needed this whole time. A lot of people have not had that. But in the beginning, the stress of, ‘I wasn’t planning for this… I’ve got enough money for a month and a half of rent’ … Financial stress will really take a toll on you.”

Katie has no plans of leaving the restaurant industry. She loves what she does and looks forward to the day she can return to work at the restaurant, but she hopes the aftermath of the pandemic will force an industry-wide reckoning. “When we get back to work safely after this, what’s going to change?” she said. “What can we do to make it so the people who provide food are not constantly, no matter how much they work, on the thinnest ice in the world?”

Going back to work hasn’t entirely relieved the financial burden for most workers, even in states where restaurants have fully reopened. A recent survey of more than 2,600 food service workers by the organization One Fair Wage found that 83 percent of tipped workers have experienced a decline in tips since the pandemic began. More than half of workers surveyed said they’re hesitant to enforce coronavirus safety protocols — such as asking customers to wear masks — because they’re worried about customers tipping them less in retaliation.

Mary, a bartender at a private social club in New York City who also asked to use a pseudonym, says she’s repeatedly had to deal with customers who refuse to wear masks or follow other safety protocols. The club where she works is currently closed due to New York’s restrictions on indoor dining, but when it was open, she had to deal with the possibility of being infected by coworkers and patrons alike.

“A lot of members — and I think because these are obviously people who come from a lot of money — didn’t really care as much to keep their masks on,” Mary says. “They would come up to the bar occasionally and would get annoyed if I told them, ‘You can’t order here. You have to put your mask on. You can’t approach us.’ It was frustrating.”

Slepian, the barista in Montana, has had similar experiences in the cafe where she works. “It’s been terrible, because we’re the people telling customers they can’t do things, and they react really strongly to that,” she says. “You see someone walk in without a mask and your blood pressure shoots through the roof, because you’ve had so many people argue with you.”

If and when things do go “back to normal,” it won’t be because the coronavirus has disappeared. Experts are starting to warn that the virus may never fully go away, meaning our new way of life — the masks, the distancing — will be necessary for longer than anyone could have anticipated when lockdowns began last year. But people want their old lives back. So badly, in fact, that they’re willing to fight with low-wage food service workers over something as small as wearing a mask. Slepian said she’s grown more anxious — and angry — as the pandemic has gone on. “I’ve gotten more on edge,” she says. “I’m beleaguered, I guess. I’m exhausted by it. And I dread it.”

Gaby del Valle is a freelance reporter who primarily covers immigration and labor. Victor Bizar Gomez is an illustrator and painter in Portland, Oregon.