When Isabelle Owens arrived at her Fort Greene restaurant last week, she told her manager she didn’t want to serve customers indoors. Her manager consented, but said she’d be one of the first to lose her job as winter progresses and outdoor dining becomes less viable.
Across the city last week, workers like Owens have now been asked to serve customers indoors, as the city restarted indoor dining for the first time in six months. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who announced the resumption of indoor dining last month, touted the measure as a lifeline for an industry ravaged by pandemic-related shutdowns, and several restaurant owners view it as an essential move to stay afloat in the coming months.
Many restaurant workers, though, are less enthusiastic about customers eating indoors. In addition to the chaos of implementing government-mandated precautions, service employees are concerned about their safety. For many, the return of indoor dining means they may be forced to choose between their income and their health.
“I really feel like my health, both mental, emotional, and physical, are just not anywhere seen on the agenda,” says Owens. “Nobody cares about the waitstaff, and that’s from local government to dining rules to management to the customer. Who I am, what my job is, does not matter to them, because the business comes first.”
The return to indoor dining on September 30 was preceded by an uptick in COVID-19 cases in parts of Brooklyn and Queens. The development has fueled alarm for restaurant staffers who witnessed a rise in cases in other parts of the country partly due to an early return of indoor dining.
Furthermore, an analysis from earlier this year revealed that service workers are among the populations most likely to contract the virus, only adding to workers’ concerns.
With continually high unemployment numbers for service industry workers, many feel they have no choice but to go back. Once again, waiters, bussers, and bartenders are on the front lines of exposure, many of them working without employer-provided health care.
“If we want to make money, we [are] probably risking [our] health, but if we want to be safe for our health, probably we are losing money,” says Stephany Saldana, a server assistant at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Manhattan. “We want to serve people. We really want to still be part of New York’s hospitality business, but there is insecurity.”
Saldana says she’s happy to return to work, but notes that diners continue to disregard social-distancing norms and other health precautions.
The state has mandated that all restaurants offering indoor dining check the temperatures of all patrons and that one person in each party provide contact information, in case contract tracing is necessary. The city has said that customers should wear masks while not consuming food or drinks, and that tables must be six feet apart.
But several workers say that patrons lack knowledge of the restrictions, or even that indoor dining has resumed. Some customers arrive expecting a dining experience unencumbered by the precautions necessitated by a pandemic.
“About half of [the] guests have no idea that indoor dining has started and don’t realize they’ve booked for indoor when it’s very clear in the reservation system,” says Lauren Mozuch, general manager and sommelier at Michelin-starred Williamsburg restaurant Meadowsweet. “People just sit down and rip [their masks] off as if we’re not standing two feet from them.”
Mozuch says the owners of Meadowsweet felt the government-mandated precautions weren’t restrictive enough to protect the safety of its workers and diners, and took additional measures. The Brooklyn-based restaurant “completely revamped” its HVAC system, placed air filters throughout the dining room, and stationed hand sanitizer at every table. Owens, by contrast, described her restaurant as a “small, unventilated” space.
When asked about enforcement of the provision that “restaurants should operate with enhanced air filtration, ventilation and purification standards,” a spokesperson for the mayor’s office said that the Health Department’s routine inspections are continuing and that inspectors are investigating compliance with COVID-19 restrictions.
While safety concerns continue to alarm most restaurant staffers, some feel their places of employment have done enough for now.
“At this very moment, I feel very comfortable with the precautions taken, just because it’s become so routine for me,” says Marco Massaro, a bartender and server at Taqueria Gramercy and Taqueria St. Marks. “We’re wiping down every venue, we’re wiping down every credit card, we’re wiping down every credit card station, we’re wiping down the pens.”
Though compliance with the standards may limit COVID-19 exposure while making both employees and diners feel more comfortable, even the best safety precautions can’t eliminate all risk, workers rights advocates say.
“It is not enough and it will never be, because if one worker ends up dying, it is not going to be worth the price,” says Sekou Siby, the president of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, an organization that advocates for higher wages and better conditions for service industry workers. “We’re putting people’s lives at risk.”
The problem, Siby says, also relates to the structure of the industry, which prioritizes customer happiness.
“If your life depends on that tip, and this person [doesn’t] wear a mask, you being confrontational with them means you’re not going to get a tip,” says Siby. “The whole system is not going to work for the workers.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by workers, who say some customers have responded with consternation or anger when they’re asked to wear their masks while not consuming food or drinks.
Despite the negative customer interactions and health concerns, employees recognize the difficulty facing restaurant owners. Without a government bailout, the industry has no choice but to churn along, they say.
While outdoor dining has provided life support to restaurants, a gloomy report from the state comptroller, released last week, found that “many establishments are still struggling and others remain closed” and warned of possible mass closures.
For now, the workers’ lives hang in the balance, as they carefully track the infections spreading across parts of Brooklyn and Queens, seeking to keep themselves safe and provide an enjoyable dining experience to patrons.
“I think we [are] all on the same boat, we all want to get back to our normal lives,” says Rudy de la Cruz, the general manager at the Hill Bistro in the Bronx. He says that the federal government needs to alleviate the pressure on the industry, allowing business owners to prioritize the health of workers over generating profit.
“We’ve got to think long-term,” says de la Cruz. “We’re scrambling for answers and ways of getting back to normal. Getting back to normal is us following the protocols of social distancing.”
Daniel Moritz-Rabson is a Brooklyn-based freelance reporter whose work has been published in outlets including Fortune, PBS NewsHour and Gothamist