iners in a makeshift outdoor dining room on a Berkeley sidewalk seemed at ease last month as they nibbled on their food, mask-free. The sound of their conversations, a novel buzz punctuated by clinks of silverware and plates, took over a stretch of Shattuck Avenue where businesses were either closed or operating with muted skeleton crews.
Along with another masked pedestrian, I walked into traffic to avoid these patrons, who seemed unaffected by our dramatic circumvention. Their nonchalance confused me. What did they see that I didn’t? Even if you blurred out the eerily subdued periphery and the masked and gloved servers who resembled medical staff as they transported trays of food, the scene couldn’t pass for normal. For that, you’d have to willfully ignore news of California’s recent spikes in COVID-19 infections and a steadily rising death toll of above 9,000 in the state alone. Even then, you’ve not done enough forgetting.
To enjoy dining out amid a pandemic, you’d have to excise from your brain the fact that brown and Black people, who represent over 80% of the state’s farm and restaurant workforce, are dying at disproportionately higher rates from the virus. Behind those asymmetrical figures is an increased exposure to the virus unmitigated by social safety nets. As epidemiologist and physician Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones put it, race isn’t a risk factor, racism is. But if you muffle the inequities the pandemic has made so sharp, then you can task a largely unprotected workforce to feed your escapist fantasies of normalcy, no matter the cost to their lives.
fter shelter-in-place, outdoor dining had been an anticipated benchmark of returning to pre-pandemic life. When counties across the Bay Area crossed that threshold in June, diners eagerly flocked to patios and parklets. Any urge to reap the rewards of a spring spent sheltering in place should’ve dissipated once the infection rate rose to alarming highs through June and July. Even still, Bay Area restaurants with outdoor dining space remain open for business as diners bent on a sense of normalcy exercise their imaginations.
The responsibility of preparing for pandemic dining, including cost and education, has fallen on restaurant owners and staff, who now follow stricter-than-before health and sanitation measures, including temperature checks. Aziza’s Mourad Lahlou predicted the impacts on the industry, which already ran on ultra-thin profit margins even before COVID, back in May: “Everything is going to [cost] the same. So if we open, we’re going to have to squeeze everything, but there’s nothing to squeeze.”