Who Pays the True Cost of Dining Out During a Pandemic?

Though outdoor dining is permitted in California, the pandemic is surging and restaurant workers have little protection to ease them back into service.  (iStock)

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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.

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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.

Outdoor dining in Santa Rosa has expanded as three blocks of Fourth Street have been shut down to cars. Pictured here is the Russian River Brewing Company on Aug. 1, 2020. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

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.”

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Before the pandemic, the restaurant industry’s profit margins imposed what Lahlou called “almost immoral conditions” on restaurant workers in the Bay Area. What is being asked of those same workers now? Servers and kitchen crews have been thrust onto the front lines to meet consumer demands, some of which, like outdoor dining, are not exactly essential. While running a takeout-only operation isn’t without its own risks, exposing restaurant workers to a flow of new customers feels especially negligent considering the industry’s workforce is largely without employer-provided benefits and gets by on tip-dependent wages.

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s restaurant workers return to serving customers, there aren’t any major policy changes to ease them back. In response to the pandemic, California relaxed the enrollment period for its state-provided health insurance marketplace first through July and now through August. And in April, Gov. Gavin Newsom required paid sick leave for food workers at companies with 500 employers or more, but he made no mention of small restaurants. Paid sick leave remains a foreign concept in an industry that operates on trading shifts, and so workers go on betting their health against their livelihoods.

Though California and Bay Area counties consider health metrics for their reopening, these plans are also paced by federal economic relief programs that are at the mercy of political interests. July marked the end of federal unemployment benefits. Federal eviction moratoriums, which were never robust in their language and protections, also expired last month, though counties including Alameda, Santa Clara and San Francisco extended theirs into August. Although reopening is as much an economic project as it is a matter of public health, when it comes to outdoor dining, the scales are firmly tipped towards economic activity at the cost of workers.

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In the weeks since that first encounter with an outdoor dining scene, I’ve passed a number of others, but my shock refuses to wear off. Instead, I’ve considered that maybe dining out has always been about fantasy. Most innocuously, it’s a caring and creative culinary illusion, but also one divorced from the responsibilities and confrontations of labor. For diners, the kitchen is often obstructed from view. We go to restaurants to consider the dishes, not the dishwasher’s healthcare access. Poetic menus turn sourcing into an abstract concept through the virtues of the season’s freshest harvests. No mention is made of seasonal migrant laborers on temporary visas and minimal pay, who work on fields night into day. Maybe diners who can enjoy a meal at a restaurant during a pandemic are doubling down on a myth that predates a disease: one that encourages admiring the fruit of the labor while discarding the thought of the laborers themselves as unappetizing.

But then my mind snaps back to more pressing questions. What if reopening centered the health of food workers? What mandates could make their choices less precarious?

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Placing workers’ wellbeing at the center of policy-making would require a tremendous overhaul of systems. It’d take a cultural shift that recognizes how racism plays a role in determining whose lives are protected and whose pleasures are prioritized. This change would of course delay outdoor meals and reframe what normalcy even means. But isn’t that a more worthy fantasy?