Vilvaraja Mahendraraja works the patio at Uni restaurant in the Back Bay sporting a David Bowie mask.
“I like to show a little bit of my personality,” he says.
Normally, Mahendraraja would greet customers with a smile. Now they can’t see his grin, so Ziggy Stardust will have to suffice, coupled with a performance worthy of a Juilliard audition.
“I’m trying to make my voice and eyes emote. You get used to projecting your voice, repeating things to guests. Body language and eye contact have never been more of a valuable resource. Being able to read people is a skill that we really try to use post-COVID,” Mahendraraja says.
Outdoor dining has returned to many restaurants during Phase 2, and along with it comes a laundry list of pandemic-era safety regulations. This includes masks, which mute that familiar choreography between server and guest, as well as tables placed six feet apart. Space oddity, indeed.
“It’s a little bit stripping of what encourages a lot of us to work at restaurants — the human experience,” Mahendraraja says.
Ross Thereault, a server at Del Frisco’s in the Back Bay, determined that his usual cheeky icebreaker — “Sparkling, tap, or harbor?” — falls flat in the current climate.
“I’m having a little bit of a tough time coming up with something funny: ‘Hey, you’re back in a restaurant!’ I’m trying to say something upbeat, like, ‘I hope we’re also inside soon,’” he says.
Overall, servers say guests have returned in droves post-lockdown. They’re happy to eat food they didn’t make, drink cocktails they didn’t mix, and ready to banter.
“I get a lot of, ‘Wow, this is the best meal I’ve ever had in a restaurant,' ” Thereault says.
Appreciation goes a long way, since so much happens behind the scenes to make the process seamless.
“We’re wearing gloves that we’re changing constantly, and masks. Our patio is so far away from our kitchen that you have to stop and catch your breath. The masks impede that a lot,” Thereault says, noting that many of his customers tipped generously upon return.
“It was like Christmas morning when I woke up,” says Deidre Fallon, a server and a bartender at Reading’s Bunratty Tavern, recalling her first day back to work. “We were all nervous. Nobody knew why. We were jittery; we were excited.”
Her job is different now. She’s serving 11 outdoor tables per night instead of her typical 50, since indoor dining is prohibited. Servers need to ensure guests wear masks if they enter the restaurant (through a separate entrance) to use the bathroom. Workers sanitize credit cards, pens, computer screens, tables, chairs, railings, and umbrellas after every use. And guests sometimes can’t hear her underneath her mask.
“But people are so happy to be out that they don’t complain,” she says.
At Mida in the South End, servers wash hands and take temperatures immediately upon arrival. Then they’re screened for symptoms, derived from extensive state guidelines: shortness of breath, sore throat, fever. Mida partner Seth Gerber says that workers who report symptoms and need to go home are entitled to paid sick time.
“The culture of working no matter what isn’t acceptable any longer. There’s no pressure to come to work if you have symptoms,” Gerber says. “If you’re sick, stay home. We will take care of you for the day. But there hasn’t been a wildfire of that happening because we’re so safe at the restaurant.”
Of course, COVID-19 can sideline people for weeks. Recently, restaurants such as Mike’s City Diner have temporarily shuttered due to positive tests, risking loss of revenue. Owner Jay Hajj posted openly about his diagnosis on social media. However, some restaurateurs wonder if everyone will be transparent when a COVID-19 closure could ravage a business’s finances or reputation.
According to state guidelines, in the event of a presumptive or actual positive COVID-19 case of a worker, patron, or vendor, a restaurant must be immediately shut down for 24 hours and then must be cleaned and disinfected in accordance with current CDC guidance before re-opening.
“Do you trust business owners, who’ve been pushed to the brink by being closed, then [who] invest in reopening, to then have an employee test positive, to report it, and close again? I honestly wonder, because of the consequences, if some will look the other way,” wrote BISq’s Alex Sáenz in a recent Tweet.
Servers such as Alex Nadel also worry about their own safety returning to work. Nadel is a longtime server as well as a community organizer. His wife, also a server, is pregnant. Both were laid off due to COVID-19. He feels torn between financial security and personal safety. Even though he is uneasy about returning to work, he worries that refusal will result in the loss of unemployment benefits.
“We’re terrified,” he says. “If we lose basic unemployment, we could be a homeless family. No joke. That is the harsh reality. My back is against the wall.”
He also worries about tips at restaurants that aren’t operating at full capacity. Going back to what he considers a potentially dangerous environment might not be financially worthwhile, he says.
“How much could I even make?” he wonders.
And restaurateurs worry that revenue from patio dining alone isn’t enough to save them. A recent post from Massachusetts Restaurant United, a coalition of restaurant industry professionals advocating for policy changes in the wake of COVID-19, puts it plainly: “Outdoor dining won’t save us.” They note that more than half of restaurants don’t have regular patio access. Among other requests, the group seeks to extend a moratorium on evictions through Dec. 31.
At Mida, assistant general manager Kate Donati says that roughly 75 percent of servers have returned to work, but management limits the amount of time they actually spend with guests. Instead of leisurely coursed dinners with multiple plates and silverware, diners receive one plating to reduce person-to-person interaction. The theatrics are gone.
“I think we have mixed feelings. The vast majority of staff is excited. Our staff is excited to start talking to people, to see guests who come in all the time. At the same time, they’re nervous to be close to people, which is why we’re limiting the amount of time they spend with guests,” she says.
For now, though, a tentative rekindling has settled over the restaurant world, like dating for the first time after a long drought.
“It’s a bit like seeing old friends. It’s a little uncomfortable. Have you changed? What’s going on in your life? But after a few minutes of awkward conversation, it kind of feels normal again,” Donati says. “I think people are just excited that they can go out again. People are excited we’re still open, because so many [restaurants] have closed.”