Dr. Anthony Fauci, now President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, told CNBC in December that it might not be safe to dine indoors until the fall of 2021, by which time a significant portion of the population should theoretically be vaccinated. Few local leaders, however, appear to be heeding that sound advice, the latest of whom is New York’s own Andrew Cuomo. Post-Christmas death surges be damned, the governor announced the other week that the five boroughs would bring back socially distanced indoor dining on Sunday, February 14, at quarter capacity. Then yesterday, he said he’d move up that date to this Friday, so restaurants can make the most of the longer Valentine’s Day weekend.
The policy shift is a flawed effort to jumpstart the city’s hobbled hospitality economy, which has shed over 100,000 jobs and seen scores of permanent closures amid a lack of federal aid. Valentine’s Day, of course, feels chosen less for any health milestones and more for the fact that it is historically one of the biggest nights for restaurants. And that’s really a shame, given that the economic harm from COVID-19 can be more easily undone than what it does to human lives.
Cuomo’s announcement was head-scratching for other reasons, too. Just a few days prior, he declared that he’d keep indoor dining shuttered; when he banned that style of dining in December, he cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that urged avoiding “nonessential indoor settings” that posed a “preventable risk.”
Public health indicators like positive test results will have to continue trending downward for a reopening to stay on track. They might for now, but thousands of people are still getting infected every day, and twice as many people are dying than when the governor shut down indoor dining less than two months ago. City data shows positive COVID test rates are falling, but over 15 ZIP codes have rates over 11 percent, including Hunts Point in the Bronx (over 14 percent) and Flushing (over 15 percent). And while the governor let New York City expand vaccine eligibility to restaurant workers after initially balking at the suggestion, supply shortages will still make getting inoculated tough for many.
In fact, the governor has no concrete plan to inoculate hospitality workers, which means he’s putting an undervaccinated workforce under the same roof as an undervaccinated clientele. He’s doing this as the national death toll creeps toward half a million, with new mutations threatening further horrors. And he’s doing this without improving upon his inadequate restaurant safety measures. A more generous observer might say Cuomo is falling to the trap of so many optimistic leaders, leaning on hope as a strategy. I’d argue, instead, that the governor is flipping on a generator in a water-laden basement filled with folks wearing aluminum foil suits. He should know that avoiding more hospitalizations or deaths would be a miracle. He should know that bringing back indoor dining is wrong.
To understand why vaccinations are a key issue for restaurant workers, consider the following: Collectively, they are underinsured; they aren’t eligible for hazard pay; they work in close quarters; they often commute in from parts of town with higher COVID-19 rates; they belong to groups with higher pandemic death rates; and they serve customers who spend much of their time in the premises unmasked. These facts have deadly, real-life consequences.
A University of California study recently showed that cooks, head chefs, bartenders, and bakers risk some of the highest mortality rates during the pandemic. With indoor dining, the possibility of infection is even higher. “There is evidence that under certain conditions, people with COVID-19 seem to have infected others who were more than 6 feet away,” the CDC states, citing airborne transmission of aerosol droplets at indoor dining rooms.
Cuomo, after facing criticism for not expanding vaccine eligibility, said last week that restaurant workers could finally begin receiving shots. It’s a good first step. If only there were enough vaccines to inoculate a sufficient number of staffers and diners. Yes, nationwide supplies will increase soon. For now, however, workers are already experiencing problems securing vaccination appointments at the brand new food service-focused site at Citi Field, which was delayed until two days before the onset of indoor dining.
On a personal note: I’ve not been able to secure vaccination appointments for either of my parents, one of whom is a utility worker who regularly interacts with customers. Both have been eligible for nearly a month.
Only 413,000 of the city’s 8 million-plus residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the local health department, with just 183,000 of those residents having received a second dose (that number goes up if you include people outside of the five boroughs). What’s worse: Latinx men and women, who make up about 29 percent of the city’s population and who comprise a significant portion of the hospitality industry, have only received 16 percent of vaccinations, versus 47 percent for white folks. Black people, just under a quarter of the city’s population, have only received 12 percent of shots.
One wonders why Cuomo can’t wait a little longer for more vaccines to come online, instead of conducting such a grand social experiment on a group of staffers who have disproportionately struggled during the pandemic. Latinx folks, for example, have suffered COVID death rates that are nearly double those of white New Yorkers.
Low vaccination rates should be of particular concern given how newer strains of COVID-19 spread more rapidly. Falling ill with the virus “does not seem to protect you against re-infection,” Fauci said last week, when it comes to dealing with the emerging South Africa variant. The separate, highly transmissible variant from the United Kingdom is expected to become the “predominant” strain in the U.S. in March, the CDC reported. The agency added that the U.K. strain, which has been found on Long Island, has the potential to increase the U.S. pandemic trajectory and that “taking measures to reduce transmission now can lessen the potential impact ... and allow critical time to increase vaccination coverage.”
This all raises a series of very basic questions. If vaccination appointments are hard to come by, if Latinx and Black communities have been marginalized during the initial rounds of inoculations, and if the CDC is asking the country to try to reduce transmission for fear of new mutations, shouldn’t the debate be over whether to heighten hospitality restrictions even further, instead of loosening them and sickening more staffers?
When Cuomo announced his decision to allow indoor dining, he didn’t strengthen any of the state’s relevant restaurant regulations. Some of those rules, such as those regarding air filtration, are already strict. Others are sadly better tuned toward minimizing customer disruptions than protecting staffers or neighboring diners. Patrons still aren’t required to keep masks on at tables. Restaurants can’t require potential patrons to answer health screening questions like airlines do. And only a single member of each party has to leave contact tracing information, potentially handicapping public health inquiries.
Cuomo did, however, address safety in a more roundabout way in his initial announcement. “I believe if I said today movie theaters can open to 100 percent, I don’t believe people go. I believe people have to be confident that it’s safe,” the governor said while explaining his larger decision to allow indoor dining in February — and to relaunch “safe” wedding ceremonies in March.
“Safe” is a vexing word choice. The CDC’s website tends to use language that refers to relative risk versus absolute determinations of safety. The agency calls takeout a “lowest risk” affair, outdoor dining “more” risky, and indoor dining “higher risk,” even when there’s six feet of physical distancing. Fauci, who acknowledges the financial devastation of restaurants, has supported those distancing measures for areas that allow dining inside. Though really, one could argue that six feet — the New York standard — is more of a baseline than a failsafe, particularly in the presence of more contagious variants. “Unfortunately, the [social distancing] guidance of six feet is probably weakened by a more transmissible virus and also by more virus [droplets in the air],” Dr. Anne Liu, an infectious disease physician at Stanford, told Eater’s Elazar Sontag.
The CDC also believes that the length of a meal is something worth considering. “Minimize the time you spend in the restaurant or bar. The longer you stay, the more you increase your risk,” the CDC reports. Nothing in the state’s guidelines require or even recommend cutting the length of long, multi-hour tasting menus that are set to relaunch with the return of indoor dining.
Cuomo himself moved to ban indoor dining last fall after stating that visits to bars and restaurants constituted the state’s fifth leading cause of COVID-19 infections; hospitality groups countered that those transmissions only constituted 1.43 percent of cases, according to data derived from 46,000 responses to contact tracers.
But here’s the thing: If that statewide percentage reflects the spread of disease throughout the five boroughs — and it might not for a variety of statistical reasons, including the fact that the voluntary nature of contact tracing provides an incomplete picture — it still could translate to over 1,600 new cases every month, based on the city’s current infection data. Since those numbers could go up even further as more diners choose indoor seating over al fresco tables in February, would this not be high time to mandate that patrons keep masks on while interacting with service staffers?
Take the case of Long Island, which sees over 1,300 new cases every day, the highest outside of the city. Nassau County dining rooms are often filled to half capacity (the legal limit) or past that on the weekends, while patrons, by my anecdotal observations, almost never don masks while not actively eating at a table. That’s in spite of the fact that state guidance recommends that restaurants encourage folks keep on face coverings during those precise circumstances.
So while I’m no more a behavioral psychologist than the governor, I’m going to suggest that many of the people who’ve already engaged in indoor dining aren’t as concerned with safety as Cuomo thinks they are. If the state says it’s okay to start doing something again, no shortage of cabin fever-afflicted customers are probably going to go ahead and do it.
Patrons also aren’t likely to adopt safety measures unless they’re legally obligated to, a reality that’s all the more true after a few cocktails. Perhaps it’s an issue of customer entitlement, as Khushbu Shah recently argued in Food & Wine. Maybe it’s that those customers belong to a slice of the public that jetted around the country to commingle with friends and relatives during the holidays, contributing to the deadliest phase of the pandemic yet, with nearly 80,000 domestic COVID-19 deaths in January alone. If so many Americans refused to follow the advice of public health officials — which was to stay at home to avoid sickening the people they’re closest to — should we really trust them to care about safeguarding the lives of fellow diners they’ve never met, or of service industry employees they’ve historically treated as an underclass?
Inasmuch as it’s one of the most basic duties of government to protect its citizens, Cuomo should keep indoor dining closed until he can better guarantee the safety of the workers who stand to suffer the most. And since allowing indoor dining on Long Island and in other areas of the state threatens to sicken more folks and disadvantage city restaurants operating under tougher restrictions, Cuomo should shutter that style of service in those regions too.