Rebekah’s Pandemic Diary: Indoor Dining, WEEEEE!!!!!

26 Sep
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Good news, everyone! New York City is about to restart indoor dining at 25% capacity just 6 hellacious months after we were abruptly, and belatedly, shutdown due to the spread of the coronavirus. Since that day in March, those of us who remained here in New York City watched horrified as our overwhelmed hospitals teetered on the brink of collapse; as our frontline workers lacked proper PPE and sufficient medical equipment; as refrigerated trucks parked outside hospitals to house the pileup of 23,792 (and counting!) deceased New Yorkers whose deaths were officially attributed to the coronavirus. We listened to silence punctuated by ambulance wales, never-ending fireworks displays and calls for defunding the police. Thinking back to those earlier days of the pandemic – to the desperate pleas by a governor I usually despise, the empty streets and the feeling of impending doom that hung heavily over every exit of my apartment – I can’t help but think of our collective trauma but also how far we have come from the worst days. By and large those of us who stayed behind followed the ever-changing directives given to us by Governor Cuomo and Dr. Fauci, even as they oftentimes came in direct opposition to the bullshit seeping daily from the White House. (Coulda used those tapes earlier, Woodward!) But remember: we are not out of the woods yet.

This is why the opening of indoor dining causes me such alarm. Back in March, in the long days leading up to the slowdown, I saw on Twitter an uptick of people berating those still going out to bars and restaurants. As a person who makes her living off working in a bar, it was really hard for me to stomach. There they were, people in office jobs with the option for remote work and a continued paycheck, citing the selfishness of people going to bars without engaging with the very real financial catastrophe service industry professionals were facing. Remember, this was before the CARES Act passed, and there was no guarantee that a Senate run by Mitch McConnell and an Administration staffed by Donald Trump would acknowledge the very steep cliff we were all about to tumble over. Let us not forget that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, worth $300 million, thought $1,200 would last people 10 weeks. HA. But even with the threat of impending financial ruin, many of us urged the city to close bars and restaurants. We all knew that if the bars remained open people would continue to go out; and that if people continued to go out, the death toll would rise precipitously.

It took people weeks, some months, to get through to the New York Department of Labor to register for unemployment and to get that additional weekly benefit of $600 that for many of us was an absolute life saver. And then, just like that, the benefit ended. Many of us, myself included, returned to work once the state deemed it “safe.” We projected our voices through masks and plastic sneeze guards, over the noise of fans and music, while we figured out what it meant to leave our homes again and how to interact in this new world. We were tasked with policing the behavior of our customers (and this, remember, is on top of the regular policing of behavior that we have to do in normal times which is made considerably more difficult when half of each person’s face is obscured by a mask):

  1. Make sure they are wearing their masks indoors
  2. Masks must be worn unless the customer is seated
  3. An item of food must be sold to each customer in a party with the purchase of the first round and no, I don’t understand why so please don’t ask.

Bars and restaurants spent money trying to get their outdoor seating in order and hustled to get their staff back to work. Some of us, myself happily included, are fortunate enough to work for people who seriously care about our well-being and have bent over backwards to make sure the conditions are as safe as possible for us and for our customers. Some other folks are not so lucky. But even the most careful among us cannot guarantee 100% safety against a deadly airborne illness. With a return to indoor dining – even at 25% capacity – there are dangers, and those of us who remain in a room for hours on end with unmasked revelers are particularly at risk. You’ve all been to bars – the drunker people get, the more they yell, and laugh loudly, and project tiny potentially infected aerosols out into the air. And, in the opinion of someone who has been in the industry for well over a decade (yes, those are quiet sobs that you hear in the distance), the people who are most likely to want to return to indoor eating and drinking are those who are less risk-averse, and those are the people I am least excited to share recycled air with.

So I guess here’s where I am. Throughout this whole pandemic, if you were to listen to people (gestures widely), you would think that the bar and restaurant industry was somehow guilty of manufacturing and spreading the virus. It was bars – not lies from the White House – that was responsible for the surge in deaths here in New York City. Those of us who worked in the service industry before the shutdown were selfish for wanting to try and make money before we were catapulted into the unknown. Some people returned as “essential workers” to their previous places of employment, putting themselves at risk to give their fellow New Yorkers some semblance of normalcy in an otherwise upside-down reality. Then, the government closed the coffers, cutting off the unemployment extension and throwing small businesses to the wolves. The choice was clear: stay closed and go out of business or find a way to operate. The early rhetoric spewed by people like Dan Patrick about how old people should essentially volunteer to die in order to save the economy, a thing that we were all horrified by, is spreading, albeit in less direct terminology. The current administration did the calculation of economy versus safety and decided that the economy is more important. They cut New Yorkers off and we are forced to fend for ourselves, even while the pandemic rages across the country and people continue to travel into and out of our city.

It’s a hard pill to swallow. Bars were super spreader locations but now all of a sudden, right when it starts getting chilly and New York City remains at 16% unemployment, it’s safe for them to open indoors. Maybe I’m being cynical but it feels as though this decision was made out of financial desperation as opposed to solid public health advice. We’ve been told for the past few months that wearing masks and avoiding spending time indoors with people was a great way to slow the spread. So what changed? I know that our infection rate has remained low but isn’t that more because people and businesses have been abiding by public health guidelines and less because we are actually safe now? And what does this mean for those of us who continue to go to work because, essentially, our financial reality tells us we have no choice? Do we stop seeing the few friends we have met up with, safely, in recent months? Do we stop having dinner with our parents? Do we essentially quarantine between shifts because we have no real way to guarantee that the people we are spending time with indoors have been making good choices? (I would venture to bet that they have not been.) I just feel like the federal government’s lack of swift, concrete, across-the-board action has made it so that we – small business owners and those of us who work for them – don’t really have much of a choice between financial survival and, well, survival.

I don’t know what the answers are to any of this. What I do know is that I feel pretty damn expendable and, in turn, that makes me feel like I am losing my mind. Is it actually unsafe to return to indoor dining or is that the March-May trauma speaking? I know the economy has to get moving, but how do we in good conscience decide when the risk is low enough to try, and whose health is most important? Why did the 643 richest billionaires amass $845 billion in the last 6 months while the rest of us don’t know how we will pay rent? (Elon Musk’s wealth 273% increased to $92 billion over the course of the pandemic. Good for him!) How can the Senate start pushing a judicial confirmation days after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death but they couldn’t bother to pass another legitimate aid package to keep us above water? And how THE FUCK is it possible that this murderous white supremacist might get another four-year term?

It’s true, I am just a bartender, not a public health expert. But I have spent quite a lot of time around drunk people to know that, very often, drunk people make poor choices. So why are we trusting them with the most valuable thing of all – our health? I don’t know, but I guess we’re all about to find out.

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