Last week, a worker at one of my favorite bakeries in Los Angeles tested positive for COVID-19.
Bub and Grandma’s, which provides wonderfully crackly sourdough to restaurants, coffee shops and grocery stores all over the city, posted the news on Instagram: Staff members thought they had taken every precaution, but somehow the virus had still found its way into their kitchen.
The bakery wisely shut down. Two days later, the staff had reported six positive cases. The business posted a stark reminder to its followers: “It is not over.”
You could easily be lulled into feeling that it is. It has been a month since local officials announced that Los Angeles County dining rooms could safely reopen. But with each passing day, the cost of gathering again in workplaces and public spaces across the United States becomes clear: a spike in infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
In the meantime, government officials send out chaotic mixed messages that are almost impossible to decipher. Though dining rooms in the Los Angeles area are still open, Mayor Eric Garcetti encouraged people to stay home as recently as last week. So which is it? Go out or stay home?
For months, people have been left to figure it out for themselves. Faced with a constant stream of contradictory advice, it’s no wonder so many people are reaching so many different conclusions.
I’d love to be sitting in a bustling dining room, feeling completely safe and at ease, surrounded by friends with drinks in their hands. But I haven’t been out for a meal since March, and I don’t plan to go any time soon.
For now, I’m devoted to cooking for myself, or picking up takeout — whether it’s barbacoa or banh cuon — and bringing it all home. There’s enough tension as it is, standing in line, masked up, 6 feet away from other customers, just to get my order. And it’s far more stressful for restaurant workers.
On Sunday, Hugo’s Tacos announced that it was closing both of its Los Angeles locations. Too many customers, refusing to wear masks, had threatened and harassed employees, throwing things at them, getting close to their faces, yelling.
“A mask isn’t symbolic of anything, other than our desire to keep our staff healthy,” the restaurant’s statement read. But wearing a mask has been widely positioned as a political move rather than a basic health precaution, making every shift more dangerous for workers, who continue to put themselves at risk to make us dinner.
And a quick look at cities and states that reopened their public spaces earlier suggests that it’s not safe to go without a mask, or to be around those who aren’t wearing them.
As Tennessee tops 40,000 cases since the pandemic began, Gov. Bill Lee has extended the state of emergency until the end of August. After a surge in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order to close the state’s bars and reduce restaurants’ indoor seating capacity by half.
Just after Florida reported 8,942 new cases in one day — almost double its previous record — Gov. Ron DeSantis shut down all bars in the state. On Sunday, Gov. Gavin Newsom followed suit, shutting down bars in several counties in California, including Los Angeles.
On Monday, the governors of New York and New Jersey looked to the reports coming out of other states and reconsidered their own imminent plans to reopen dining rooms.
The guidance has been unclear, messy and fragmented, with different states adhering to different sets of rules on their own timelines. In the resulting chaos, restaurant owners have been left to make life-changing resolutions that could affect public health. They’ve also been pushed to make decisions — about cutting jobs or staffing up — that can become irrelevant within a day, or a week, as policies change.
Some restaurants are sticking with delivery and takeout, unsure how to reopen safely. Others that pivoted to becoming grocery stores are staying that course. The Momofuku Group put out its own health and safety handbook, and made the document public so other restaurants could reference it. It includes a detailed deep-cleaning log for both the kitchen and dining room, and another with recommendations on sanitizers and dishwashing chemicals.
In Los Angeles County, the health department’s protocol for reopening is strict, but just over a week ago, health inspectors who visited about 2,000 restaurants found that only half were actually in compliance.
The city has since broken its own daily record, reporting more than 2,903 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday alone. The spread of the disease may be complex, but it’s impossible to ignore these numbers.
Restaurateurs, despite being pushed into the role, are not our public health officials. Understandably, many want customers to fill up their dining rooms, to eat and drink well, and to spend money again. But after collecting data from 30 million credit and debit card holders, JPMorgan Chase found a close correlation between the level of spending in restaurants and new cases of COVID-19: Restaurants can easily turn into hot spots.
Restaurant owners can’t, and shouldn’t, be in charge of weighing and managing the risks to both their customers and workers. How deep is their knowledge of the virus and its spread? What are their priorities? And why should they be put in an impossible position, stuck between the economic imperative to reopen and the fact that reopening may harm their workers and customers?
I’ve been dreaming for months about a streamlined reopening of dining rooms, about going back out to eat in a post-pandemic world. I’ve been tracking new kitchens, revisiting old ones, staying up late studying menus and looking forward to getting back to work as a critic in a newly rebuilt restaurant industry.
This seems completely absurd to me now. More than 20 million Americans are out of work because of the pandemic, and more than 125,000 have died.
As other countries have quickly and efficiently flattened their curves, the United States hasn’t controlled the spread of the virus. Instead, many officials have minimized its severity, planned poorly during lockdowns, and failed to take decisive steps that could have made a safe national reopening possible.
So for now, going back to restaurants as I knew them is just that: a dream.