A very good bartender told me late last year that he was worried about another pause in indoor dining, a policy shift Gov. Andrew Cuomo was hinting at as the city’s hospitalization rates ticked up after Thanksgiving. The bartender’s fear was not unfounded.
Cuomo ended up banning indoor service again before the winter COVID surge took hold, and the staffer’s hours were cut to just two days per week. The bartender also implied he wasn’t eligible for traditional unemployment benefits, which made losing work all the more treacherous for the Queens resident. Cuomo, as the story goes, allowed city dining rooms to reopen in February, a move designed to assist ailing restaurant owners and the 140,000 or so local hospitality staffers who were still out of work. The governor’s reversal, indeed, likely improved the financial well-being of the bartender, who used to serve me stellar daiquiris in the Before Times.
Then I thought about the staffer’s health. He fell ill with COVID-19 last spring, but hasn’t been vaccinated yet, he told me. And nearly a year after getting sick, his sense of taste or smell still hasn’t returned. But here’s what really angered me: As that long-hauler and others worked inside one night, not one window or door was open for added ventilation; hosts didn’t ask diners about potential COVID-19 exposures or symptoms; and I didn’t see a single patron with a mask on. The novel coronavirus, we know, spreads via respiratory droplets, which is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call indoor dining a “higher risk” activity.
Restaurant workers who’ve already sacrificed and suffered so much — who’ve been forced to choose between protecting their financial livelihoods and securing their health — deserve better protections against infection as indoor dining returns. Mayor Bill de Blasio would seem to agree.
The city issued a new set of restaurant guidelines last week, asking patrons to reduce party sizes and keep masks on while chatting with staffers. Still, there’s a catch: Dining regulations are set by the state, not the city. And Cuomo, who’s been more aggressively pursuing reopenings than safeguarding the lives of workers, hasn’t meaningfully strengthened his indoor dining rulebook since before the holiday surges that killed over 200,000 nationwide. He hasn’t added protections even as he learns about more highly contagious variants, even as he loosens restrictions on other areas of the consumer economy, even as the city’s positive test rate drops more slowly than nationwide statistics.
The governor, accordingly, should do something he’s not always inclined to. He should listen to the de Blasio administration — or follow the lead of prudent officials in California and New Jersey — and adopt some of these tougher indoor dining rules. He should do so immediately, especially now that he’s expanded indoor dining in the city by 10 percent to 35 percent capacity, a move that will put more people in harm’s way.
I still believe Cuomo was wrong to bring back indoor dining. Cases, hospitalizations, and death rates continue to fall, but thousands of New Yorkers continue to fall ill every day. Rochelle Walensky, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said yesterday she’s “really worried” about states rolling back public health measures as cases plateau at a high level.
More than 13 local ZIP codes suffer from positivity rates over 10 percent. A more deadly South Africa variant of the virus, which appears to have a “very high rate” of reinfecting those who’ve already fallen ill, was detected in Long Island last week. A U.K. variant of COVID, known to be much more transmissible, is spreading throughout the state. The city has fully vaccinated less than 526,000 out of over 8.3 million residents. And in a recent New York Times op-ed, three health experts who were members of President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board said it was “essential” to keep indoor dining, gyms, and bars closed.
But since another set of closures doesn’t appear to be in the cards, and since we won’t pay workers to stay at home to ride out the pandemic, Cuomo needs to figure out a way to better protect restaurants staffers, patrons, and the friends and families of anyone who comes into contact with them.
The de Blasio administration’s new guidelines aim to do just that.
Dr. Jay Varma, NYC’s senior advisor for public health, released the new suggestions last week for those who “choose to dine indoors.” Before patrons go out in the first place, Varma asks diners to get tested, to limit party sizes to four people — from within a family, pod, or bubble — and to confirm that no one has COVID-like symptoms or has been exposed. Then, at the tables, diners are told keep masks on when staffers approach or when the patrons aren’t actively eating or drinking. After a meal, patrons are advised to get tested at least once per month, which is the same guidance for health care workers, first responders, teachers, and food service workers.
These recommendations, taken at face value, might seem anodyne. Why wouldn’t you put on a mask when putting in a long order with a waiter? But the truth is few diners actually wear face coverings at tables. Indeed, state dining guidelines — the ones that actually have the force of law — are more relaxed.
Cuomo’s indoor rules, which set strict air-filtration measures, allow for more than twice as many diners per table, up to 10, and don’t urge caution about mixing households. There are no testing suggestions for customers before or after a meal. In fact, restaurants can’t even require patrons to answer the same screening or exposure questions they ask their own employees every day; San Francisco restaurant staffers, by contrast, had a legal obligation to ask those questions of indoor patrons last fall. Culinary establishments also can’t stipulate that patrons must put on masks while not actively eating or drinking; venues can only “encourage” patrons to do so.
As I argued last September, many of the state’s rules feel more geared toward maintaining as much of an effortless, pre-pandemic dining experience for patrons as possible, and less toward mitigating the spread of disease. Notwithstanding a cluster initiative that has largely fallen by the wayside, Cuomo hasn’t substantively strengthened those rules since last fall.
The governor’s lack of action is perplexing given that he’s been vocal about having coordinated policies with regional leaders. He said his move to raise capacity to 35 percent was partly to bring the city into alignment with New Jersey’s own limit. It’s an interesting point of comparison, because the Garden State has tougher rules than New York on table capacity, with a lower table limit of eight people per party for mixed households. Patrons there must also keep face coverings on when they’re not eating or drinking.
Similarly, in Los Angeles, new outdoor dining regulations forbid parties over the size of six, and customers must keep facial coverings on in between courses and whenever a server approaches.
Cuomo should know that switching something from a suggestion — especially one few people follow — to a mandate has the potential to save lives. That call to action should be all the more pressing as vaccination rates are quite low among Latinx folks, who make up a significant portion of the hospitality industry, and among Black people. It’s even tempting to suggest the governor go further than de Blasio’s new guidelines and impose limits on how long a party can spend at an indoor dining room. San Francisco diners, for example, are limited to two hours outdoors.
“Shopping for five minutes in the grocery store is a lot better — six times better — than shopping for 30 minutes,” Tom Frieden, the former director of the CDC, told Vox as part of a story on the rise of more transmissible COVID-19 variants. Grocery shopping for five minutes, of course, does not involve taking off one’s mask. Dining inside does.
In the city, you can still spend two and a half hours at a restaurant with nine friends indoors, interact with servers every three minutes, chat with your buddies at the other end of the table, and not be in violation of a single rule if your mask is off the whole time. By comparison, if you showed up to a Long Island Rail Road station and refused to put on a face covering in an empty train car, you could be ticketed $50. Heck, last time I strolled down the High Line, an outdoor park, a worker admonished my companion for having her mask off for a few seconds.
As scores of industries protect their own workers — and the public — from consumers who jeopardize the health of others, restaurant servers can’t even demand patrons don masks while complaining about an overcooked Impossible Burger. Service staffers who gently suggest that patrons slip on face coverings also risk the prospect of lower tips. A recent One Fair Wage report showed that 65 percent of workers surveyed lost tips after enforcing COVID-19 safety measures; that sad state of affairs surely acts as a financial disincentive for waiters addressing these matters in the first place.
Cuomo could do so much to change that reality for service industry staffers and set a societal precedent by saying that restaurant industry workers deserve to be treated as well as any other worker. Remember, a University of California study showed that from March to October, cooks in the state carried the greatest risk of COVID-related deaths, with bartenders ranking not too far behind.
The governor, for now, should start making things better for restaurant staffers and diners alike by taking the simple step of listening to the mayor and his health advisers.