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The Responsibility of Saving Restaurants Should Never Have Been Ours

By refusing to act, the government effectively told diners that workers’ livelihoods and lives were in their hands

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Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

When it comes to pandemic behaviors, it’s easy to look at anyone doing a fun thing riskier than what you’re personally comfortable with and think they’re an asshole. I love restaurants, but I haven’t eaten in one since March 9, 2020, a week before Los Angeles issued shelter-in-place mandates. Being pregnant and then having a newborn in this pandemic fully broke my ability to assess, let alone tolerate, risk. Outdoor dining has never felt safe enough for me given Los Angeles case counts, but plenty of cautious, reasonable people feel otherwise, and I’ll admit I’m close to giving it a try. Indoor dining, however, was and still is totally out of the question. On that, at least, there seemed to be some level of consensus: Indoor diners, it has largely been determined, are The Worst and they are making The Worst Choices.

But even that’s overly simplistic. When it comes to restaurants, I’m not sure there have been any good choices at all: dine indoors, try to keep your mask on whenever a server’s nearby. Dine outside, make sure the tables are far enough apart. Dine at home from takeout boxes an underpaid delivery driver brought to you. Do none of these, and your favorite restaurant closes, putting its employees out of work, probably without a sufficient social safety net.

This charade of “choice” is the consequence of a cascade of failures by the U.S. government in the face of a monumental challenge. It was obvious that this pandemic posed an existential threat to the restaurant industry and its millions of workers. Yet shutdowns happened haphazardly and incompletely, while clear and actionable data about how to safely operate was virtually nonexistent. Much-needed relief is only now starting to materialize (and there isn’t nearly enough of it). The industry and its workers have been left to hang by a thread, with an estimated 110,000-plus bars and restaurants closed, 2.5 million jobs lost, and countless dead.

These failures are rooted in one of America’s most toxic core beliefs: that the economy matters more than the people who create it. It wasn’t surprising when the state basically abandoned the restaurant industry and its workers; in the absence of state support, what choice did operators and workers have but to keep working? The government called restaurant workers “essential” to the economy. Unfortunately, that designation also meant that they were expendable as bodies encountering a deadly virus.

Diners were compelled to participate in and reinforce the faulty premise of worker expendability every time they ordered a meal, to decide whether to endanger or impoverish workers. The truth is they should never have had the choice in the first place.

Dining rooms in America’s major cities closed as part of the initial effort to flatten the curve. Opening them back up was a crapshoot, full of baffling tiered and color-coded plans. Here in LA, indoor dining was permitted from May through July, even though cases were rising as each week went by. Then after Thanksgiving, with the city in full surge, outdoor dining was prohibited, but it remained perfectly acceptable to go shopping at an indoor mall.

Meanwhile, the government has yet to provide comprehensive, concrete data about how safe dining actually is for diners or for workers. A September 2020 CDC study said adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant, but didn’t differentiate between indoor and outdoor dining; a study released earlier this month showed allowing on-premises dining was associated with increased case counts and deaths, but again did not differentiate indoor versus outdoor dining. A study released in November that focused on New York showed dining out only accounted for 1.4 percent of the state’s spread, but was based on self-reported data from a small fraction of people in the state who tested positive. (Without a full and robust contact tracing program, this data may remain elusive.)

Confusing shutdown and reopening processes and a lack of solid data meant that diners had legitimate reasons to be unsure whether or not various ways of dining made sense: If indoor dining is permitted again, then how unsafe can it be? Months later, I still find myself thinking about Atlantic writer Olga Khazan’s man-on-the-street interviews with indoor restaurant-goers in Virginia from November. She noted that the people she saw heading to restaurants were following the local rules and were happily sporting masks. Among the people she spoke with, nearly all had specific criteria for choosing where to eat, a list of precautions they expected restaurants to take that made them feel safe dining indoors. The problem, she argues, is that the kind of precautions restaurants can advertise aren’t all that effective at stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

Plausible deniability grew in the space between what customers and operators heard about how COVID spreads and what they saw restaurants actually permitted to do. Local governments didn’t do much beyond issuing capacity and table-distance regulations; when it came to making kitchens safer to work in, most restaurants nationwide got little more than masking directives. The CDC advised that improved HVAC systems could make restaurants safer, but there were no federally available funds to retrofit accordingly until PPP was expanded in late December. Data from UCSF showed that, in California at least, cooks and chefs face an increased risk of death from COVID, but vaccine access for restaurant workers across the country has been patchy at best; on the federal level, it turned out the Trump administration had no mass vaccine distribution plan at all.

The government let the lines between safe and unsafe restaurant behavior stay blurry, but it made itself perfectly clear that dining out was an economic imperative. (One Republican politician even said the quiet part loud, noting that it was worth people dying to keep the U.S. economy humming.) There were no experiments with paying people to stay home, and the only federal relief for restaurant owners in 2020 came in the form of a needlessly complicated payroll loan program. Diners saw beloved neighborhood restaurants closing their doors, restaurants posting their farewells on Instagram. In order for the restaurants and restaurant workers to stay afloat in the ecosystem of an absent government, diners needed to dine and workers needed to work. With its (in)actions, the government effectively told diners that workers’ livelihoods and lives were in diners’ hands.

American restaurant-goers were already primed to accept this flawed premise. As practiced in the United States, tipping tasks customers with fairly paying the restaurant workers they interact with; the federal tipped minimum wage hasn’t budged since 2009. In spite of evidence that suggests tipping is correlated with harassment and that it’s discriminatory on the basis of race, customers still want it — several restaurants that went tip-free eventually brought it back. “I think a lot of people don’t see the system as being broken,” one such restaurateur told Eater. “And a lot of people love tipping. They feel some kind of power.” It’s hard to give up that sense of control.

Agency is hard enough to come by in daily life, but in a pandemic that’s made it clear just how little of it we actually have, choosing how to spend money becomes a compelling stand-in. It seems inevitable now that the choices available to even the most ethically minded diners have largely been consumer choices: Buy restaurant merch and gift cards. Get takeout and tip extravagantly. Avoid third-party delivery apps if possible. Dine outside. Eat at home.

But underneath every available option is the one terrible choice the government constructed for all of us: Engage with restaurants or watch the industry disappear. This is the wrong ultimatum, however, and one that only reinforces two distinct yet related axioms of American restaurant culture — that customers ought to have authority over workers, and that those workers matter less than their customers.

There must be different choices. It shouldn’t be up to individuals to find their way out of the options the state has boxed them into, but this is pandemic America.

For workers, the stakes are impossibly high. Choosing between money and health is grisly, and opting out of that choice might not be possible. But collective action might be. Around the country, food and restaurant workers are organizing more and more; even at a smaller scale, joining with coworkers to demand safer conditions can be a meaningful step forward.

Supporting these worker-driven efforts is one key way diners can break out of the consumer mindset the government has instilled. Diners can and should demand that the government actually govern, because the solutions that restaurants need are most available from the government, not from individual consumers. We need politicians to hear that we want restaurant workers and other essential workers prioritized for vaccination, regardless of their immigration status, and that we want to see massive, effective industry relief. Donating money is still at root a consumer choice, but it’s worth saying plainly that giving money to organizations that support restaurant workers and to restaurant workers directly is helpful.

This pandemic isn’t over. Even if it’s too late to save the restaurants and workers already hurt by our collective disregard, it’s never too late to do better. We have to.

Jeannie Phan is an internationally published print and digital illustrator from Toronto.
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter