What you need to know before going out to eat at restaurants during COVID-19

I want to talk to you all about how COVID-19 has effected the restaurant industry and what you need to know before you go out to restaurants that have reopened.


Up until March 15th, I worked at a popular restaurant here in New York City as a host. March 15th was when the management decided it was best to temporarily close and lay off all employees due to COVID-19 concerns – just 24 hours before Cuomo announced every restaurant would have to close. For weeks leading up to this decision, we were seeing a decrease in patronage as anxiety about COVID-19 rose and rose.

Prior to the management’s decision, I was scheduled for a shift the morning of March 16th. I spent a lot of mental space and stress on the 15th thinking about how I could get to work without taking the subway and social distance in an extremely crowded restaurant where patrons often get in my face. While losing my job in the face of an impending pandemic and recession, I can’t lie that I was relieved that I didn’t have to go into work and expose myself to infection.

That was 3 months ago. We now know so much more about COVID-19, how it spreads, and the effects of the disease on even the healthiest people. I was nervous to go to work in March with the restaurant doing full capacity service, thinking that I didn’t need to wear a mask because the government told us not to. So I can only imagine how nervous I would be to go to work NOW with all we know.

And now, many states are entering phases of reopening that include dine-in seating for restaurants, both indoor and outdoor depending on the state, and operating anywhere from 50-75% capacity. This includes NYC – for outdoor seating only but starting July 6th indoor seating.

I can’t necessarily tell you not to go out to eat at restaurants that have reopened – but I want to provide a voice for the restaurant industry and make you aware of the risks and understand what it means to be actively working in the service industry right now.

 

First off, I want to give some basic information about the service industry that play into the current situation with restaurants reopened:

  • In NYC, it’s proven that COVID-19 is already disproportionately hitting and killing brown and black communities in the outer boroughs the hardest. According to Rolling Stone at least 35% of the people in these communities are working in the service industry, and according to the Department of Labor’s statistics the service industry in the US is made up of at least 50% BIPOC if not more.
  • As many of us have learned lately, including me, tipping culture was adapted by American restaurants during Reconstruction to avoid paying Black people a living wage. Sadly, this inherently racist behavior has become the norm in the majority of service based establishments. Because of this servers at restaurants make WELL below minimum wage, as little at $2.13 in some states. This is because servers are expected to earn the majority of their wage through tips from patrons.
  • Restaurants are operating at lower capacity to adhere to social distancing. While some states are technically allowing restaurants to operate up to 75% capacity, many restaurants can’t actually do that due to space restrictions and are actually only serving 25% or lower of their usual capacity. So a restaurant that would normally have 200 covers (an eating and paying patron) in a night can now expect to do 50 covers if they’re lucky.
  • Margins in the restaurant business are tight. Profits margins average from 0-15%, and many restaurants make the majority of their money from alcohol sales.
  • 234,000 food service jobs were lost in NYC due to restaurant shutdowns, and only 14,000 jobs have been returned. That’s 5%.
  • Many service industry works rely on food provided by their restaurant to eat. Personally, I’ve relied heavily on my shift meal to provide me dinner and then leftovers for breakfast and lunch the next day until I go back to work and start the cycle all over again.

 

Alright those are the facts. So here is what I ask you please keep in mind if you choose to go eat out at restaurants:

  • Wear your mask. When you’re speaking to the host of maitre d’, wear your mask. When you’re talking to a server, wear your mask. Whenever you are not actively drinking or eating, wear your mask. And I don’t mean half-assed around your chin or just covering your mouth and not your nose. Wear your mask. While your servers may be wearing masks, remember that this is an extremely contagious virus and even health care workers working with COVID-19 patients wearing proper PPE have contracted the virus. So protect the people who are working hard in the middle of a pandemic to serve you food and creating a lovely evening out for you and wear your mask.
  • Tip recklessly. Tip more than you ever have. Like I said, servers literally LIVE off of tips. And I don’t mean leaving 10% or absent mindedly throwing down a couple bills, I mean 20% bare minimum. In pre-pandemic times, there is nothing more frustrating for a server to have spent 2 hours waiting on a table for the guests to leave $5 or ZERO on a $200 bill. Depending on the capacity of the restaurant, how busy that night was, and how their tip out works, the server may go home with next to nothing.
  • On the subject of capacity, restaurants are technically functioning up to 75% capacity, but with social distancing regulations some restaurants can realistically only serve around 25% capacity. Which means they are trying to make 100% of their money they need to survive as a restaurant and as individuals making income off 25% of their usual business. So what you can do as a patron to help the restaurant is to keep your meal as brief as possible, or if you choose to have a long meal and linger, spend money. Otherwise the restaurant loses revenue from another party they could have sat. This is also true for restaurants everyday any day (see above point about margins).
  • Don’t complain. Don’t make bad jokes. Don’t get in workers faces. Your hosts and servers and bussers are probably at the very least anxious and frustrated if not terrified of being at work right now so please don’t make it harder for them to do their job.
  • Eat outside – the risk of infection is lower outside, but still wear your mask and social distance.
  • Takeout is still an option – and still recklessly tip whoever is delivering your food.

 

If you are choosing to eat out at restaurants, I can’t stop you, but beg you to consider the bigger picture and how your actions can negatively affect extremely at risk people during a pandemic that has no sign of slowing down.

Thank you.

Karya Schanilec

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