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An aerial view of a waiter serving customers at Cafe Luxembourg’s outdoor seating as the city continues Phase 4 of re-opening following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on August 27, 2020 in New York City. 

NYC’s Indoor Dining Comeback Fails Restaurant Workers. Here’s Why.

Gov. Cuomo should do more to protect staffers with stricter mask and screening requirements for customers

Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

In a commercial for the Wind Creek casino in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a lithe person walks out of a Lincoln Navigator into a wonderland filled with slot machines, card tables, and pink martinis. Every patron or staffer is wearing face coverings, except, of course, inside the restaurants. Thing is, no one in the advertisement is actually drinking or tucking into, say, Emeril’s lobster mac and cheese. The clip depicts white restaurant patrons as maskless while they’re conversing or waiting in the immediate vicinity of a masked food runner, who appears to be a Black person. “Dine like you haven’t in months,” the narrator says.

What’s striking about the ad isn’t its callousness, but how it telegraphs the prevailing norm on pandemic dining. At every outdoor restaurant I’ve passed by over the past few months, I haven’t seen a single person following the New York guideline that recommends patrons keep their masks on while not actively eating or drinking, an observation also noted by critic Pete Wells. And rarely have I seen patrons don masks while speaking with service staffers. To say that makes me angry would be an understatement. COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets via coughing, sneezing, or talking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which explicitly recommends that everyone wear a mask in public in order to “protect other people.”

That casino commercial isn’t even trying to be transgressive about indoor dining; it’s blandly codifying a devastating assumption about restaurants during the COVID-19 era, which is that when dining out, patrons won’t inconvenience themselves for someone else’s safety unless they’re required to or shamed into doing so.

The ad confirms that service industry staffers, many of whom are underinsured and undocumented, and who have been long beleaguered by wage theft, assault, and other indignities, remain individuals whose wellbeing takes a backseat to the customer service experience. In restaurants, not all lives are valued equally, because the rules do more to look after folks who spend money on food and drink rather than people trying to scratch out a tough living. New York’s new indoor dining regulations sadly do little to change that reality.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last week that the five boroughs can soon return to indoor dining, an activity that, almost by design, lets people keep their masks off for a period of time that, if it happened on an airplane, would lead to a permanent ban from future flights.

Cuomo’s announcement was not surprising; the local hospitality industry has been decimated by COVID-19, and federal efforts to help furloughed staffers or struggling restaurants remain stymied. This is American governance and capitalism at its astonishing apotheosis, where the central safety net in tough times is going back to work. What’s even more incredible, however, is how New York’s path toward a more dangerous style of dining comes with few extra protections for workers, scores of whom died in the early stages of the pandemic.

Make no mistake: Many of the state’s new dining rules are strict. Restaurants must limit indoor capacity to 25 percent during the first month, or eight people for a 32-seat venue. Tables must remain six feet apart. Bar seating is verboten, which is a tough break if your restaurant is one long counter. And air filters will require costly upgrades. The rules that seek to protect employees, however, fall short of what’s necessary.

New York explicitly bans mandatory customer health screening outside of temperature checks. The state also requires just a single member of a party to leave contact-tracing information. And while staffers must wear face coverings, the guidance makes clear that restaurants shall encourage, “but not require” that patrons keep their masks on while interacting with employees at a table.

To some worker advocacy groups, diners, and critics like myself, allowing indoor dining at all seems questionable in a pre-vaccine era. Dining out, after all, is a leisure activity, not a nutritional imperative; one can receive nourishment — even luxury — through safer methods, be it home cooking, takeout, or delivery. Resurgences around the country have followed the reopening of bars and dining rooms, and despite low infection rates locally, the city could be vulnerable from raging cases throughout the United States. Daily COVID-19 deaths still regularly top 1,000 people nationally. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said in July that he isn’t eating out outdoors or indoors, while stressing that indoors is “much worse.” A new CDC study also found that COVID-19-positive people were twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant.

Still, with 163,000 hospitality staffers out of a job, with 20 percent citywide unemployment, and with many establishments unable to make weather-dependent outdoor dining work, one can at least understand the thinking behind Cuomo’s decision. What’s less understandable is that the state is failing to better protect workers — though the city deserves credit for extending open-streets eating into the fall and perhaps beyond.

If the last few years have seen the food world grapple with systemic issues like pay disparities, culinary credit, tipping, and harassment from either big-time chefs or everyday customers, the poorly regulated return of indoor dining — during a deadly pandemic, no less — feels like a middle finger to hospitality workers.

While indoor dining gives customers the promise of a climate-controlled environment and lots of sumptuous space between tables, the only true guarantee it offers staffers is a riskier work environment than before the pandemic. There is no hazard pay. In fact, with fewer tables and shorter hours, many may earn less than in the Before Times.

One wonders what would happen if the return to traditional dining rooms precedes even more infections and renewed layoffs, as it has in other states. That risk will be even higher if restaurants move to 50 percent capacity on November 1 or earlier, dovetailing with the middle of the college semester and flu season. Making matters worse is that any mass layoffs would result in more people having to subsist on austere state unemployment benefits, which often pay out less than minimum wage on an hourly basis. Wouldn’t any policymaker want to avert those tragic scenarios, especially if the biggest cost was simply making eating out slightly more inconvenient for customers?

Cuomo likes to portray New York as the progressive capital of the U.S. Indeed, he’s instituted some reasonably forward-looking policies for food service employees, like fast-tracking a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers and establishing one of the country’s highest tipped minimum wages. But on the subject of masks for indoor dining, New Jersey has the smarter rule. “When seated at their table or their individual seat, indoor patrons shall wear face coverings until their food or drinks arrive, and after individuals have finished consuming their food or drinks, they shall put their face coverings back on,” the Jersey guidelines read.

In New York, again, there is no requirement to keep on masks at any point when seated at a table. These rules “unnecessarily risk the lives of restaurant workers,” as King co-owner Annie Shi wrote in a Resy essay in July. In fact, dining out is, as best as I can tell, the only indoor activity in New York that allows customers to remove their face coverings for any significant period of time. That reality is particularly frustrating because most masked activities — be it walking into a mall boutique, riding in a taxi, or strolling through a museum — require less time inhabiting those spaces and less interaction with staffers than dining.

Cuomo even issued an executive order last week that lets authorities fine people $50 for refusing to wear a mask on a quick subway ride. With indoor dining, however, one could theoretically leave a mask off for a few hours, request the services of a waiter or sommelier multiple times, and be in no violation of any rule. That scenario will become all the more prevalent as the city’s myriad tasting-menu and omakase venues, which largely remained shuttered for outdoor dining, begin to reopen.

Taking off a face covering might be central to the physiological act of eating or drinking, but it’s only incidental to the social act of sitting at a restaurant table and gabbing with a friend, or the pathological act of lounging indoors during brunch and complaining to the server about under-Champagne-ed mimosas.

Cuomo should immediately adopt the stronger Jersey standard on mask wearing. New York should also let restaurants keep their workplace safe with customer screenings. Before boarding any Delta or United Airlines flight, passengers must answer questions about COVID-19 exposure and symptoms. Under current dining guidelines, those screenings are only required for employees; they cannot be mandatory for diners. The policy is especially unfortunate because the screening questions, asked during the reservation or confirmation process, would allow patrons to think about their health in a more structured way before they even leave their homes. Such questionnaires would be even more useful than on airlines, as dining out for many in New York is a daily affair.

Then there’s the issue of contact tracing, a city program that investigates COVID-19 exposures and follows up with individuals on quarantine guidelines and assistance. In June, the New York Times reported that contact-tracing teams are often unable to get in touch with positive individuals.

Cuomo took a step in the right direction by requiring at least one member of every indoor party to leave contact information for tracing purposes. He should quickly strengthen that rule to include every patron. If one cannot fly anonymously on a 45-minute trip to Boston or Washington, D.C., why would nine people be able to dine anonymously for two hours as part of a boisterous table of 10 — the generous New York party-size limit — without masks?

Compliance is never free when lawyers are involved, but improving Cuomo’s regulations should only create minimal additional financial obligations for strained restaurants. Most of these suggestions require just a smidge of extra effort on the part of the diner. And that’s key. Mandates like social distancing and barriers between tables will help with COVID-19 spread, but the greater imperative for government policy should be to help change customer behavior, to engender a greater level of societal respect for the sacrifices of restaurant workers, and to protect the human inhabitants of this city who were hit harder by COVID-19 than those anywhere else.

Indoor dining guidance, as it exists in the Empire State, seems more geared toward minimizing customer inconveniences — to put on a display of “normalcy” rather than enforce safety. That’s a misguided aim if widespread vaccination doesn’t come until the middle of 2021, a scenario in which we’ll all need to adapt and care for one another on a long-term basis.

Not doing more to shape diner habits feels like an especially gross omission as parts of the culinary world try to solve larger problems that vaccines can’t help with. Ultimately, it’s a question of respect and empathy. If our progressive state can’t require all patrons take a few extra steps to protect waiters, runners, bartenders, and cooks — and their families at home — how will diners feel compelled to engage in the more deeply disruptive changes or soul-searching it will take to truly improve the lives of restaurant workers? Those changes — like paying more for food or going out of one’s way to patronize restaurants owned by marginalized groups instead of buying yet another ribeye from that steakhouse — will be all the more challenging to effect if New York tells diners that a restaurant table is a mask-free escape from a disease that has killed nearly 200,000 Americans.

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