food The Indoor-Dining Debate Isn’t a Debate at All
Last Friday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that New York City restaurants would be allowed to resume partial-capacity indoor dining on Valentine’s Day—in a non-pandemic year, one of the hospitality industry’s busiest nights. The following Monday, at his daily media briefing, Cuomo faced a question of urgent relevance to this decision. In New York State, the covid-19 vaccine is now—at least, in theory—available to health-care workers, teachers, grocery-store employees, people over the age of sixty-five, and others constituting what the state has labelled groups 1a and 1b. Restaurant workers, though, were not yet included in either group. If Cuomo was going to reopen the city’s restaurants, shouldn’t their workers—including delivery couriers—be made eligible for the vaccine? “You want to add someone? We already don’t have enough,” Cuomo responded. “Who do you want to remove? You want to remove teachers? Police? Fire? Sixty-five-plus?” The push to include restaurant workers in group 1b was, he added, a “cheap, insincere discussion.” Less than twenty-four hours later, after weathering considerable backlash, he reversed his position, sort of. Mostly, he kicked the brick down the road to city, county, and other local authorities. Restaurant workers may be added to vaccination group 1b, Cuomo said, if regional health departments “think it works within their prioritization locally.”
Throughout the pandemic, Cuomo has excelled at these games of jurisdictional hot-potato, especially when it comes to management of New York City, a job he shares with Mayor Bill de Blasio, his bête noire and favorite punching bag. The city’s restaurants and other retail businesses have followed an independent schedule of closures and reopenings, separate from the rest of the state, and the two men’s months of rapid-fire, sometimes contradictory declarations have left New Yorkers in a state of agitated confusion. (According to a recent Times report, Cuomo’s peremptory approach to pandemic policy has also led to the departure of a worrisome number of his top health officials.) This is the city’s second flirtation with a return to dining in: in September of last year, Cuomo allowed restaurants to reopen at twenty-five-per-cent capacity, as long as they met certain safety requirements. Thirteen weeks later, in mid-December, the experiment came to an abrupt halt; faced with spiking infection rates, and fearing even more transmission over the holidays, he again banned all indoor dining statewide.
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.
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Why, then, allow restaurants to open their dining rooms at all? I imagine it’s to create the soothing illusion of progress—against the virus, against economic disaster, toward some sense of a return to normalcy. There are two parallel narratives about the efforts to combat covid-19. One is about Big Decisions: its protagonists are mayors, governors, health officials, Presidents; its story is told through reopening phases, infection rates, movement restrictions, economic indicators, vaccine rollouts. The other is a quotidian one, a story of what we’re all actually doing in our daily lives. Our individual, everyday choices involve a personal calculus weighing compliance against convenience, risk against reward: going to the grocery store versus getting food delivered, taking your mask off if you’re alone on the sidewalk versus leaving it on, maintaining six feet of distance from friends at an outdoor gathering versus letting yourself slip just a bit. The more chaotic and unreliable the systemic narrative, the more vital individual vigilance starts to feel—we’re left with a pervasive sense that, in the face of government mismanagement and indifference, it is up to each of us to save what those in power are allowing to die: if the businesses we love close down, it’s our own fault; if the people they employ are out of work, it’s our own fault.
We are not, of course, individually responsible for the sort of relief, support, and subsidy that ought to be provided by a competent government, but surely we are obligated to consider the impact of our actions in light of all that has happened during the pandemic so far. In December, the city and state’s worsening infection rates and climbing death tolls were not the fault of desperate restaurateurs who chose to open their dining rooms, nor were they the fault of people who trusted the leaders who gave them permission to go and eat. But today, on the cusp of a second, nearly identical experiment with indoor dining, the moral weight of our individual decisions has increased. We know what happened last time; we know the limits of what this move can fix, and the extent of whom it can harm. 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.
Helen Rosner is a staff writer at The New Yorker. In 2016, she won the James Beard award for personal-essay writing.