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Customers dine at outdoor tables at Have & Meyer

Cuomo Is Wrong to Rush Toward Mask-Free, Before-Times Dining

Disparities in vaccination rates and poor worker protections suggest the governor isn’t going about restaurant reopenings fairly, critic Ryan Sutton argues

Earlier in April, in a city where COVID-19 cases had just begun creeping down from a plateau of nearly 3,800 cases a day, I biked over to a review dinner — only to discover that the eating area was in a very full communal tent. That’s not how I liked to dine then (or now), but a good swath of the structure was open to the elements, which allowed for gusts of ventilation. Then something odd happened. Shortly after my main course arrived, the restaurant rolled down the open-air portion of the tent to warm things up — because comfort trumps health, apparently. That meant that I was suddenly eating indoors, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers one of the riskiest forms of dining out for unvaccinated folks. Not a single patron in that dining room was masked. After a few minutes, I asked for the check, packed up my largely untouched entree, and left.

People who dine out regularly will encounter more of these tricky scenarios in the weeks to come, as the five boroughs return to a Before Times style of full-capacity dining, virtually ensuring denser crowds and fewer protections for everyone. Even though infection levels have improved dramatically — average daily cases have fallen below 650 — continued disparities in vaccination rates, along with poor safeguards for workers and diners, suggest that we are most definitely not ready to let our guard down.

As of today, May 19, New York is coming quite close to letting restaurants go back to the pre-pandemic way of life. Local venues will be able to reopen at up to 100 percent capacity, while Gov. Andrew Cuomo is also adopting new CDC guidance to allow fully vaccinated people (or those who claim to be) to engage in most indoor activities, including dining, without a mask.

To be clear, this isn’t a huge difference from the state’s already lax guidelines, which allow any patron — whether inoculated or not — to hang out maskless at a dining room table. One of the bigger changes here, however, is that businesses like bars and restaurants will also be able to let vaccinated employees go mask-free as well. Other states around the country have been dropping their mask mandates too, while large businesses like Walmart, Starbucks, and Trader Joe’s are doing the same.

Some owners and operators will surely view this all as positive news, as a chance to finally bring things back to normal after the most devastating year for restaurants in a generation. Whether the governor’s adoption of the CDC guidance is actually prudent public policy, however, is a very different question.

Millions of New York City residents — including 58 percent of the adult Latinx population, who make up a significant portion of the hospitality industry — still haven’t received their first shot. The local COVID-19 death rate, while thankfully lower than at this time last year, is falling entirely more slowly than it was last May, when there were no vaccines at all. By contrast, California and New Jersey, whose daily COVID fatalities are lower than New York’s, are keeping their indoor masking requirements in place, for now.

Bars and other culinary establishments will be free to continue to enforce masking in their own venues, but Cuomo has also stated that restaurants won’t be obligated to check whether anyone is actually vaccinated before they take off their masks.

The governor’s decision to ramp up indoor capacity while allowing restaurants to drop safety measures for both employees and patrons, in short, is profoundly stupid and cruel. Amid a pandemic whose nationwide death toll is approaching 600,000, New York continues to let the individual notions of comfort and customer convenience continue to reign supreme, taking precedence over the welfare of restaurant staffers, their families, and more cautious patrons. Workers who’ve reported losing gratuities for enforcing mask-wearing mandates will now have even less societal leverage while looking after their health and the health of others. The basic questions that should guide public policy are whether we’re doing enough to minimize further death and illness as we bring the food-service industry back to normal — and whether we’re engendering enough respect for the people who feed us every day, many of whom aren’t rushing to return to their jobs. We are not.

Like many of you, I’m excited to learn that it’s safe for fully vaccinated folks to return to indoor dining rooms, an activity that will help keep people employed and our economy chugging along. But it’s not clear that moving back to full-capacity dining — while relaxing restrictions — is the right way to do this, not after a month when just under 900 city residents have died of COVID-19, not when Manhattan has the highest vaccination rate by up to 20 percentage points (versus the Bronx), not when white folks have received their shots at such a quicker rate than their Black or Latinx counterparts.

Since the late winter, governors across the U.S. have been lifting restrictions on various activities as they face understandable pressure from devastated businesses and pandemic-fatigued constituents. One of those governors is Cuomo, who has reopened movie theaters, gyms, mass sporting events, and amusement parks. He also reopened indoor dining at one-quarter capacity in the city just before Valentine’s Day, then bumped it up to 50 percent in March. In the wake of those policy moves, cases largely hovered just below 4,000 cases for about a month, a reality likely fueled in part by contagious variants. Also, recall that a CDC study from March showed that areas opening on-premises dining saw an increase in infections, while another California study showed that cooks and bartenders had some of the highest COVID or COVID-related mortality rates in the state.

Cuomo, amid this precarious but improving environment, has continued to charge forward on reopenings and vaccination efforts. On the latter front, there is, again, positive news. Dr. Anthony Fauci, advisor to President Biden and one of the nation’s leading infectious disease experts, told NPR in early April that he didn’t see a potential fourth wave of the virus becoming as severe as the previous three. He characterized our national situation as akin to “a race between the potential for a surge and our ability to vaccinate as many people as we possibly can. And hopefully, if you want to make this a metaphorical race, the vaccine is going to win this one.”

If anything, the reality of a world where the pandemic is (eventually) under control is what makes the lax policies of Cuomo and others seem so heartless. All three vaccines have been shown to prevent severe disease and deaths. All society needs is a bit more time and a few more protections as the population gets vaxxed up. It’s as if Cuomo is encouraging people to go about their business in a building with a few fires still burning, while each occupant has to call for the individual fire trucks to come.

The governor’s open-everything ethos is all the more troubling when one dives a bit deeper into the data regarding who has been getting the vaccine, and who hasn’t. About 39 percent of the city is now fully vaccinated, but Latinx folks (who have died at nearly twice the rate of white people during the pandemic) are only 25 percent fully vaccinated, while Black people are just 21 percent vaccinated. White people, by contrast, are 37 percent vaccinated. Those numbers, incidentally, are for people of all ages; epidemiologists surveyed by the New York Times suggested the pandemic won’t come to an end until at least 70 percent of us — including children under 12, who are not yet eligible — are vaccinated. Only 30 percent of 18- to 24-years-olds are vaccinated, which raises concerns for young restaurant staffers.

It’s also worth considering the disjointed borough perspective: Manhattan had the lowest death rate by far during the pandemic, and it currently has the highest vaccination rate, with over 51 percent of residents having received their second shot. Just the same, the Bronx — the borough with the highest pandemic death rate — bears the city’s lowest vaccination rate, with just 31 percent of residents fully inoculated.

Cuomo’s ongoing stance appears to be that society can tolerate the number of lives lost — which works out to 892 people over the past 30 days in the city — to help prop up the consumer economy. The fact that things are getting better shouldn’t desensitize us to the catastrophe our city is still experiencing, with a daily toll of losses that would be national headline news in any other era.

A person in an orange beanie handles pieces of chicken at a tabletop grill. In the background, diners sit at tables and wait to order food.

Consider this: Last spring, it took less than a month for average daily deaths to fall from 79 people to 19. Over the past 30 days this year, that same average has only fallen from around 47 daily deaths to 20, despite widely available vaccines and doctors’ clearer understanding of COVID-19 treatments. The difference is apparent: That long spring of enjoying air-conditioned brunches inside restaurants and in cozy communal tents almost certainly had a very real human cost.

It’s against this backdrop that Cuomo isn’t taking any extra steps to protect workers, who will now be increasingly at risk. How many restaurants will check for proof of vaccination if the governor is making that step voluntary, and if the head of the CDC has stated that compliance throughout society will be on an “honor system”? How many bars will be able to hold the course on facial coverings if the cocktail spot next door has a looser policy? Indeed, Eater has already received reports of “combative” diners approaching restaurants and questioning their mask policies. (Also, see this report from Austin, Texas.)

Restaurants that choose to eliminate social distancing in all or part of their establishments will ostensibly have a few more hoops to jump through; Cuomo will actually require proof of vaccinations in those cases. But venues can skirt that requirement by simply erecting table dividers. Whether those pieces of furniture are effective is a different story. “If there isn’t good airflow in the space, the plastic barriers might not have much effect at all,” an architectural engineer told Vox last fall.

The optimistic point of view would be to say that Cuomo is giving the food service industry more control over individual mask policies; I’d counter that New York is no longer guaranteeing a safe and uniform PPE policy for all customers and staffers.

It should be noted that New York continues to strongly recommend continued mask wearing for indoor settings where vaccination status is unknown.

This all has implications beyond the pandemic. The governor’s apathy toward commonsense health policies, which feeds off the sentiments of a cabin-fever-afflicted populace, or at least a certain privileged segment of it, is not how we should reboot our troubled hospitality industry. Restaurant staffers are questioning whether to return to work in the first place. Many of those employees are still reeling from the abuses of the #MeToo era, not to mention suffering the sting of lower tips, a federal failure to raise their minimum rate of pay, toxic kitchen culture, and unruly customers who have long refused to wear masks inside restaurants — even as those same patrons don’t feel safe enough to go back to their own offices.

Cuomo’s strategy here is a great way to convince workers that the pandemic restaurant experience — where the customer is supposedly always right, even if it jeopardizes the lives of the service class — is on track to mimic the pre-pandemic one. So much has changed in our world. Yet for so many restaurant workers, not much really has.

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