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  • Nora Berman

I'm an Unemployed Waitress. Don't Dine Out At All.

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

Restaurant staff across the country like myself are being asked to risk their lives for you to feel normal.

My serving job at an expensive restaurant in Manhattan ended abruptly in mid-March. The last evening I worked, I had the distinct feeling of being a violinist in the quartet on the Titanic, doggedly serenading despite certain death as my sonatas/wine key attempted to assuage the panicked first-class passengers trying to flee.

My restaurant had been taking precautions since February. Extra hand-wash and hand-sanitizer stations were installed and cleaning guidelines in English and Spanish posted in the kitchen. We gave all the pens nightly bleach baths, among other intensified cleaning protocols. Our managers told us to stay home if we were feeling literally the slightest bit sick, “unless you’re hungover,” they clarified lovingly.

I washed my hands before and after I interacted with a guest in any way whatsoever : before I picked up silverware to mark the next course, before and after I touched clean or dirty dishes or had to squeeze through a crowd to reach the service bar. I tried not to count how many hundreds of people I interacted with in the course of my job, beyond the guests I was officially responsible for in my forty-person capacity section that I turned at least twice a shift.

Guests would still sneeze and cough into our faces while we interacted with them, merrily tipping a wad of snot-soaked tissues into the olive oil ramekin for us to dispose of — a behavior that long predates and unfortunately I doubt will cease post-pandemic. It happened so often in those last weeks despite the increasing threat of infection that our general manager permitted us to wear gloves disposing of their used tissues in front of them: a desperate attempt to genteelly shame them into caring about our health too.

The majority of guests are not this thoughtless, and I promise I will keep the server rants to a minimum. However, the Titanic’s quartet is singing loudly again in my ear as I see folks not batting an eyelash at their waiter in hazmat gear, or when I read about officials debating the limits of indoor vs. outdoor seating capacities. In real-time I’m seeing privatization of public space all so we can make sure people can eat and drink outdoors during a pandemic? Rather than far more crucial matters like reopening schools?

I have worked as a waitress on and off for fourteen years, and I do not think dining in or out of doors is safe to resume at all. Over 140,000 Americans have died of a lethal, highly communicable virus, and cases continue to climb. Eating out places the burden of risk on restaurant staff, many of whom do not share the privileges of my white skin, citizenship, and modest generational wealth and are therefore disproportionately dying of COVID-19.

The risk factors of restaurants, bars and nightclubs as potential super-spreader events are well documented by health and epidemiological experts. A study by JPMorgan found that an increase in restaurant spending habits was the “strongest predictor” to a rise in infection rates. While it is significantly more likely to contract coronavirus indoors, even outdoor dining presents a context filled with possibilities for transmission. Alcohol inhibits social distancing and mask wearing, as does the consumption of food. Shouting specials and orders over a crowded table projects a spray of particles from the waitstaff and guests’ mouths, as does laughing, singing, and talking loudly — all things common to any restaurant or bar. Even to-go service poses risks, with over-intoxication leading customers to congregate or harass the staff when they’re asked to wear a mask and keep socially distant.

When a possibly asymptomatic customer decides to indulge that craving for frosé or enchiladas during a pandemic, they are asking largely uninsured restaurant staff to depend on two things to protect themselves. The first is their employer(s), who are in an existential fight for their survival, in an industry where “normal” involves razor-thin margins and working without benefits or paid sick leave. The second is the customer. A tipped employee’s financial well-being is directly tied to their ability to connect with and serve strangers. Right now those strangers are our fellow Americans, who to say the absolute least are currently a mixed bag in their observance of mask, isolation, and social-distancing etiquette.

In talking to former coworkers and friends who have returned to work in restaurants across New York City and the country in recent weeks, nothing I have heard inspires confidence. It’s hard to not feel like our lives are valued less than that perfect martini our guests have been missing as they work safely from home.

We’re all scared. Many of us are artists or freelancers whose other sources of income from creative fields like the performing arts and film have also vanished. My husband and I calculate almost daily how long we can afford to stay in our home. Until September? October? At night I lie awake consumed with worry about all of my undocumented and otherwise marginalized coworkers. Latinx people alone make up 26.8% of the food & beverage industry according to 2019 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and they are more than twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than white Americans like myself.

Those of us that make a living in this industry do not deserve to be “human capital stock” sacrificed on the altar of denial, when the inherent nature of what we do is a proven driver of transmission, infection, and ultimately prolonged economic devastation. From Beejhy Barhany, owner of Tsion (a delicious Ethiopian-Mediterranean spot in Harlem) pleading for assistance to the GoFundMe for my dear lesbian dive bar, restaurant owners across the city and the country are desperate for sustained, long-term federal aid.

Support from our former patrons is crucial. We need you to order take-out or delivery directly from the restaurants if you are privileged enough to do so. If you can afford this, you can also afford to tip that essential worker who delivers your food 35%. I guarantee they need it.

Call your representatives to continue Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) through the end of 2020. Pressure them to bail out the restaurant industry made up largely of small businesses the way they bailed out massive chains like Shake Shack in 2020 and big banks in 2009. Demand federal legislation that protects tipped employees who largely work for below minimum wage with no benefits.

Potential quarantine-fatigued or asymptomatic guests are not the solution to our survival but rather will unintentionally ensure the continued exploitation of the most vulnerable amongst us. Restaurants and bars are the quintessential small business. They exist to nourish their community both physically and socially, and when done well, the result is magic. I know, because I miss it too.

Please don’t dine out right now. Your server is begging you.

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