When Governor Charlie Baker announced that restaurants would not be part of the first phase of reopening the Massachusetts economy, I breathed a sigh of relief.
I am a restaurant critic, and I am not ready to eat in a restaurant right now.
Let me be clear: I want to, badly. Before the pandemic, going out to eat was one of the most regular and pleasurable activities in my life. For many years, multiple times a week, I pulled up a chair at Thai bistros, Italian trattorias, sushi counters, and New American canteens, then went home to write about it. Did I go to restaurants for work, or did I work to go to restaurants? I mean, yes.
But there are simply too many sticking points right now — practical, moral — to contemplate anything more up close and personal than takeout. Baker’s four-phase approach to reopening includes restaurants in Phase II, putting the earliest possible date for dining in at June 8.
The practical concerns are clear. Massachusetts still averages more than 1,000 newly reported infections a day, and coronavirus loves to spread in enclosed environments like dining rooms and places of worship. I pray for everyone who will soon be attending religious services, an option in Phase I. On Mother’s Day, at a California church, 180 people were exposed to the virus by an asymptomatic congregant who tested positive the next day. There is no steak frites heavenly enough to get me to take a comparable risk at this moment. Even seated 6 feet apart, served by people in stylish matching masks embroidered with the restaurant’s logo, a crack pit crew disinfecting each table between uses, there are too many unpredictable vectors.
Social distancing best protects us in situations where we are only exposed to one another briefly. As Erin Bromage, a comparative immunologist and biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, pointed out in a blog post that went viral: “Social distancing guidelines don’t hold in indoor spaces where you spend a lot of time” — like restaurants — “as people on the opposite side of the room were infected.” A diagram shows how over the course of a meal in a Guangzhou, China,restaurant that lasted 60 to 90 minutes, one person infected four out of the nine others at the table. The infection pattern at the adjacent tables is seemingly erratic: most of the people at one, none at two, a few at the faraway side of another. But those who were infected were sitting in the recirculating air from the AC, simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
People can’t eat with masks on. Imagine the horror in the room if someone sneezes. And would anyone feel comfortable using the restrooms? The restaurant experience is only in part about eating. It is also about having fun, relaxing, enjoying the company of others. Right now, I’d have a hard time doing any of those things inside a restaurant. I am not alone: A poll earlier this month by Suffolk University, The Boston Globe, and WGBH News found that only 42 percent of respondents would feel comfortable eating out once allowed. (That goes up to 64 percent if there were an effective treatment, and 85 percent with a vaccine.)
It pains me to say it, because many restaurants won’t make it through this. It’s impossible to predict how many, but in a James Beard Foundation survey of some 1,400 owners of small and independent restaurants, more than 38 percent had closed temporarily or potentially permanently as of mid-April. The pivots to takeout, groceries and supplies, cocktail mixers, meal kits — these help, but they aren’t enough to keep businesses that were founded on a dine-in model going long-term. (They also prove, once again, how nimble, creative, and resourceful people in this industry are — just the qualities one wants from entrepreneurs, and qualities that should be rewarded.) In the same survey, about two-thirds of respondents reported they were uncertain whether takeout or delivery would be able to sustain their businesses while they wait to reopen.
It breaks my heart to say it, too, because in addition to loving restaurants, I care about and respect restaurant people. There is no group I’d trust more to keep me safe in a situation involving hygiene protocols. Food safety, you say? They have a HACCP plan for that. When Baker referenced “self-certification” — the written COVID-19 Control Plan each business must develop in order to reopen — I thought, well, chefs could probably do that in their sleep. The coronavirus is a fragile little snowflake, no match for human digestion or industrial-strength restaurant appliances and solvents. Boo-hoo, buh-bye, you puny damn virus. Every time we eat at a restaurant, we put our health in the hands of its staff. We always have. This is only different by an order of magnitude.
But we still need restaurant inspections as a safeguard, and a whole new level of oversight is now called for. It will take time to develop, train for, and implement. Too, each safety measure is another line item, in a business where the average profit margin was already only 3 percent to 6 percent. Paying for personal protective equipment and other necessities aside, how does a business with those margins keep going with occupancy greatly reduced because of distancing? How do tipped workers survive with so many fewer customers to do the tipping?
This is where the moral concerns come into play: the staff. I am not particularly worried about restaurant compliance and prioritization when it comes to diners’ health and safety. I am, however, worried about compliance and prioritization on the part of diners. The public isn’t trained to think about hygiene the way the restaurant workforce is. Less generously, the public can be unconcerned or downright disdainful when it comes to the well-being of others. When restaurants reopen, diners will be taken care of. Will workers?
They will need to weigh personal and family safety against getting a paycheck, one that could be smaller than it was before. Many will need to take public transportation to work, something folks are much less eager to do than eat out: Just 18 percent would feel comfortable riding a bus, subway, or commuter train, according to the Suffolk/Globe/WGBH poll. Will they have access to the PPE they need? Will they have access to the child care they need? Those guidelines are still being developed.
June 8 is three weeks away. That’s an eternity for small-business owners trying to hang on. For coronavirus, it’s an incubation period and change. If we begin getting haircuts and going to beaches on May 25, as the phased approach permits, we will only just be starting to see what that means for infection rates. If restaurants can’t reopen soon, it could be disastrous for them. But reopening, then having to close again because of a spike in infections, could be even worse.
On Monday, Donald Trump met with a group of chefs and restaurant executives, who asked for more federal support and changes to the Paycheck Protection Program, such as an extension of the eight-week forgiveness period. Groups such as Mass Restaurants United and the Independent Restaurant Coalition are asking for measures including PPP adjustments and rent rebates. The IRC has requested the creation of a $120 billion Independent Restaurant Stabilization Fund. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and Senator Kamala Harris’s Saving Our Street Act would provide $124.5 billion in grants targeted toward minority-owned businesses and those with fewer than 10 employees, restaurants among them.
These are the kinds of measures we need for restaurants to move forward in a way that is healthy for both business and humans. As soon as the data support it, I’ll be back where I belong, pulling up a chair to eat in a restaurant, then going home to write about it.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.