Before dining out became a game of risk, with real-life consequences, Mary Kalemkerian would pick a restaurant based on what she actually wanted to eat or what place had just opened in her neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Those days are gone. Her selection process is considerably more rigorous now. It involves a checklist: What are the restaurant’s covid-19 protocols? How far are the tables spaced apart? On what block does the restaurant do business? Is there a lot of foot traffic?
If a restaurant can’t satisfy her minimum requirements, Kalemkerian, 43, won’t patronize its patio. She doesn’t even have a checklist for indoor dining, which resumed in New York City on Sept. 30. For her, that option isn’t on the table.
“I don’t see myself dining indoors ever, not until I’m vaccinated. The idea of being indoors in most situations bothers me,” said Kalemkerian, a human rights officer at the United Nations. “A situation where I’m eating, other people are eating, they’re breathing and there are walls around us basically freaks me out.”
As temperatures drop and patios start to close, diners across the country will soon have to make up their own minds. They are not easy decisions. There are no foolproof calculations. The federal government has not issued a set of universal, mandatory rules to guide the nation’s hundreds of thousands of restaurants. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued only “considerations,” leaving safety protocols, sick leave policies and customer behavior in the hands of local jurisdictions and individual owners. The protocols, as you can imagine, vary widely.
To dine in or not to dine in? The considerations begin with the personal and quickly expand to public concerns: worker welfare, lack of universal health care, restaurant survival, ventilation systems, government safety nets, questionable information sources and much more. These considerations are naturally influenced by the daily news cycle, which can fuel fears or create a greater sense of urgency. A lack of a new stimulus bill? Time to help save restaurants! Dining out increases your risk of coronavirus infection? Time to stay home and cook!
Cindy Clifford says there are three kinds of people during the pandemic: Those who won’t re-enter public life until there’s a vaccine. Those who don’t care and go about their daily lives as if everything is normal. And those, like her, who follow the protocols and try to enjoy the few comforts still available. Clifford, 60, who owns a Houston public relations firm dedicated to corporate and technology clients, says she dines out five to six times a week, often for business. She dines inside, mostly because it’s too hot and humid to eat outdoors in swampy southeast Texas.
“I think it’s serious,” Clifford says about the virus, which she has successfully avoided. “I think it’s something that you have to be wildly careful about.”
But “eating,” she adds with a laugh, “is all we have to do.”
Since late August, American adults have been fairly consistent in their attitude toward dining inside restaurants. Over the course of seven surveys conducted by Axios-Ipsos, between 26 and 29% of respondents said they consider indoor dining a “large risk” to their health. Conversely, on those same surveys, between 7 and 11% of Americans said indoor dining poses no risk at all.
Yet the very question posed by Axios-Ipsos pollsters – how much of a risk to your health and well-being is dining in at a restaurant right now? – does not begin to cover the many concerns that weigh on Americans as they make their own decisions. Lawrence Severt, a neurologist who works for a drug company, avoids indoor dining because he’s temporarily living with his elderly parents, who are susceptible to the virus. Matthew Larkin, a line cook in Columbus, Ohio, occasionally dines inside because he wants to support his peers, many of whom, he suspects, cannot survive on takeout and delivery alone. Rebecca Thimmesch, a former youth organizer in Washington, D.C., refuses to dine out because it puts restaurant employees at risk, whether in face-to-face interactions with customers or during their trips on public transportation.
Severt, Larkin and Thimmesch are each looking at dining from an ethical perspective. That is, how their behaviors could potentially affect others. There are no neutral positions in the ethical discussion of indoor dining, says Randy Cohen, 72, the New York-based writer who, for more than a decade, served as the Ethicist (and America’s conscience) for the New York Times Magazine.
“There are ethical implications about eating at a restaurant and not eating at a restaurant,” he says. “No matter what you do, you’ll do harm. If you go eat in a restaurant, you’ll endanger the health of other people. If you don’t go eat in a restaurant, you’ll endanger them in other ways, financially. It has real serious consequences since our government decided that a safety net is for suckers and losers.”
Americans have been placed in this no-win situation, several diners say, because of the government’s mixed messages and muted response to the virus. Larkin, 28, the line cook in Columbus, was working in a restaurant this February in Hong Kong, about 600 miles south of Wuhan, where some of the first coronavirus cases were detected. The restaurant took the threat seriously: Managers required diners to sign declarations saying they hadn’t traveled and hadn’t been around anyone who tested positive, Larkin remembers. They also supplied staff with protective gear. Everyone agreed to the restrictions, he says. It wasn’t a big deal.
When he came back to Columbus, his hometown, Larkin discovered a “surreal and strange” landscape where some acted as if covid-19 were no worse than the seasonal flu. He had been living in a region that was an international role model for its early response (though it did have later spikes). He returned to a country that was arguing about the wisdom of wearing masks.
“It didn’t have to be this way.” Larkin says. “I do think we could have definitely limited the spread by making larger sacrifices in the beginning to put us at a point now where things are not so stressed and we could be a bit more open.”
Thimmesch, 24, the former youth organizer who recently moved to London to study food policy, has a genuine affection for restaurants and the people who work for them. She writes about food on her “weeklyish” online newsletter. She doesn’t want to see the industry die a slow death, but she also resents being put in the position to save them.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable that this rests on my shoulders. I don’t even have a car. How am I supposed to save an industry?” she says. “The way that we have been framed as the keepers of the restaurant industry is really unfortunate, because it puts a lot of pressure on people.”
As someone with an autoimmune disorder, Thimmesch doesn’t plan on eating inside restaurants anytime soon, but she does support the industry through takeout. Not just any place gets her patronage, however. Like Kalemkerian in New York, Thimmesch has conditions. She wants to know how restaurants and coffee shops support their employees: not just the protocols for social distancing and masks, but the policies for sick leave, the commitment to flexible work schedules and the business attitude toward people of color. She’ll send emails, engage with owners through social media, talk to workers behind takeout tables and even call a business directly. She tends to trust the information that comes from employees over the rhetoric from employers.
“When you talk to staff, that’s kind of when you get the real story,” she says.
Samuel Kerstein, 55, professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland, has similar concerns about the reliability of information during a pandemic. Take, for instance, heating and cooling systems in restaurants. Who really understands whether the system has adequate air exchange or filters? Can you trust owners to tell you the truth about their ventilation systems when they may be trying to save a dying business?
“I don’t think that individuals have a moral duty to dine indoors,” says Kerstein, who specializes in ethics. “Think about it this way: It’s reasonable to have a view that we all have a duty to help others, but we don’t have a duty to maximally help others. It’s legitimate for us to take our welfare into account and the welfare of the people we love.”
Is it any wonder Americans feel stressed about the decision, just when they need to keep stress down?
“Any kind of stress reduces your ability to fight off a disease,” says Severt, 54, the neurologist. “And it just gets worse the more stressors you add.”
One school of thought, says Cohen, the ethicist, holds that we should respect and support an adult’s decision to go back to work in a restaurant during a pandemic. But there are limitations to this philosophy, he notes. Some workers may feel such financial pressure that they will assume risks they normally wouldn’t. Plus, I gently remind him, many may not have health insurance to cover medical bills should they contract the virus from asymptomatic customers.
Cohen pauses for a second.
“OK,” he says. “I’m going to go back into bed and pull the covers over my head, thank you.”