Helen Rosner has an excellent piece about how permitting indoor dining during the pandemic is a policy failure, and choosing to dine indoors although the data is unambiguous that it cannot be done safely is the wrong choice:
Struggling restaurants that try to follow the ricocheting rules have mostly relied on takeout and delivery, outdoor dining (a difficult sell in the depths of winter, even with heat lamps and yurts), and alternative revenue streams such as grocery sales, T-shirt lines, and meal kits. Opening dining rooms at twenty-five-per-cent capacity, many restaurateurs have pointed out, won’t draw enough additional revenue to cover their overhead, or rehire a full staff, or make a dent in months of accumulated rent and taxes. Conversations I’ve had with servers, cooks, and other restaurant workers overwhelmingly boil down to anger and fear: they feel trapped between a paycheck (and, for some of them, the customer-is-always-right performance that a tip-based income demands) and their personal safety—a November Stanford University study identified full-service restaurants as “superspreader” sites, and a recent University of California analysis found line cooks to be the workers at highest risk for death from covid-19. When the city’s dining rooms reopened in September, the seven-day average for new infections was in the three hundreds; on December 11th, when Cuomo shut them down again, the average had climbed to 3,391. On Friday, when he announced the Valentine’s Day reopening, it was 5,579—sixty-five per cent higher than the figure he’d deemed too dangerous the first time around. Cuomo’s administration has pointed out that the current numbers are trending downward, and as of Tuesday de Blasio has extended vaccine eligibility to the city’s 317,000-plus restaurant workers. But, even if all of them could start the vaccination process today, they wouldn’t receive their second doses for weeks—little comfort to restaurant workers who will face indoor customers in just nine days.
There is a flip side to the fallacy of individual responsibility during the pandemic: just because we’ve been given permission to do something doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do.
There are certainly noble, community-minded reasons for people to want to eat in restaurants right now—to help a business’s bottom line, to boost the tips of the front-of-house staff—but they can be fulfilled without informing the double-masked gentleman at the host stand that, yes, you’ll be a party of four tonight. Order takeout and leave a tip for the staff as if you were dining in; buy a gift card—and, to help the considerable number of servers, bussers, etc., who remain unemployed, donate to hospitality-worker relief funds, restaurant-staff GoFundMes, and the like. The arguments for actually taking a seat inside are more inward-facing, and emotional: we’re bored of eating at home, we miss being social, we miss being served; it’s my birthday, it’s my anniversary, it’s Valentine’s Day and Andrew Cuomo told me to do it. All these reasons, at their core, come down to the same thing: I really want to. And who doesn’t want to? Who wouldn’t love to go to a restaurant right now, to sit with friends, order a few dishes, take bites off one another’s plates, and tipsily wander to the bathroom and maybe make a game-time call about ordering the chocolate mousse even though we’d all agreed to forgo dessert? We are tired of shivering under heat lamps, and eating yet another meal out of takeout containers, and staring out the windows of our homes and cars at the world beyond. Given where we are right now, though, in New York and in the country as a whole, “I really want to” doesn’t feel like enough.
The fact that by the end of this month there will almost certainly be three safe and effective vaccines approved for use in the United States makes this all the more maddening. And thanks to the fine folks in Georgia, some independent restaurants will finally be getting the federal bailout they should have received last spring. Just sit tight! It won’t be long until outdoor dining is viable in most of the country, and a few months later indoor dining should be able to be done safely. But opening restaurants far before the virus has been suppressed — NY has averaged 9,000 new cases a day over the last week — is madness. Loosely-enforced maximum capacity requirements, like frequent sanitization etc., are just hygiene theater that ignore the fundamental reality that unmasked indoor interaction cannot be done safely.
The primary blame here belongs to the policymakers — both the state and local officials who have permitted restaurants to open in unsafe conditions and the federal officials who until now have refused to help restaurants or make up for massive state and local revenue losses. But, as Rosner says, this doesn’t remove all burden from the individual. Choosing to dine indoors during the pandemic is choosing to put yourself and others in the community as risk, with workers bearing the brunt of it. Even if it is permitted, and in the vast majority of American jurisdictions this week it will be, you shouldn’t do it.