Food For Thought: Service Industry Faces More Challenges During The Pandemic

It Takes Two To Tango To Make Restaurant Service Function

Dan Pennington
12 min read
Service Industry Faces More Challenges During the Pandemic
Think about everything you touch, and the level of time it takes to clean up after. (Dan Pennington)
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COVID-19 has taken over almost any other thought we would normally have in our day-to-day lives. Traipsing around the home has left many feeling the aggressive urge to do literally anything to feel like a pandemic isn’t happening all around them. With restaurants cautiously reopening throughout June, it’s become a weird trek back out into a world we once knew, with some of us hoping to sit down and eat something that isn’t burned and unseasoned by our inattention in the kitchen. For restaurant owners this has become a double-edged sword.

On one hand, with things reopened, there is finally income for those who have been left hanging in the balance, wondering if their tables would ever see people sitting at them again. They can finally bring back staff to work again, providing a somewhat stable income to those who were watching unemployment tick toward expiration. On the other hand, there are a lot of risks involved. Obviously, the spread of the disease is prime on everyone’s mind. It’s still out there, and it doesn’t care that you just want to eat a cheeseburger with a friend. With increased sanitation at the forefront of the safe reopening strategies, is it enough? Workers are obviously the ones highest at risk, as they will have to interact with people on multiple occasions throughout a single meal. From taking menus, picking up dishes, running payment and cleaning off the table, there are a multitude of ways that a carrier can put a staff member at risk even with a six-foot distance and mask in place. Which brings up the next point, mask etiquette.

I’m Masking You Nicely

I hate my mask. I don’t hate it for what it is, because it’s a gorgeous thing that has adjustable straps, is covered in a sunflower pattern and has an inside joke stitched into it, hidden among the many petals that adorn it. It was made by Bandit.Masks.505 and it fits me wonderfully. But am I in discomfort when I wear it? Absolutely. It’s not fun, it’s not pleasant, but I only have to wear it a total of three to four hours in a week. I continue to wear it when out in the public because I know it helps slow the spread. I find comfort in knowing that while I may be slightly uncomfortable, I am doing my part to protect others. Masked, I find comfort in empathy. Which takes us to the crux of this whole discussion (if you call me telling you my thoughts on dining in restaurants a discussion).

I get it: You want to eat at a restaurant because it’s literally not your home. A change of scenery is a well-known idiom for good reason. We naturally like seeing and doing new things. I can’t stop you from going and eating at a restaurant; arguably no one can, with the exception being the restaurant owner. But I can plead with you to consider the ramifications of your actions. I can plead with you to find compassion for others who don’t have a choice. I can plead with you to empathize with the workers who are walking on a tightrope of fear, with one side being loss of income and eventually housing, and the other being contracting the coronavirus. Let’s get one thing out of the way before we dive any deeper in: Yes, survival rate is somewhat high on a personal scale, but the long-term ramifications of survival of the virus are relatively unknown, and even then, no one wants the slim chance of being isolated and intubated with risk of death, especially over your want of a Margarita and tacos. So how do we ethically dine out?

A Blanket Suggestion

The first option is the easiest. Just get take out. You are not locked into eating at home. Get creative to get out of the house. Have a picnic with your favorite restaurant’s food. There are plenty of city parks to visit that you can lay a blanket out on the grass and just enjoy while distanced from others. Go up the Sandias and take in a great view of the city with some good food. You can support the restaurant and keep staff safe, and you can be out of your house for all of it.

OK, let’s assume my appeal to your caring nature hasn’t worked, and you’ve truly committed to going in, sitting down and eating inside the restaurant. Your best option is outside, where air flows help dissipate any problematic potential particulates. No patio, or it’s full and you don’t want to wait? Alright, fine, we’ll discuss the interior dining logistics. I sat down with a few service industry workers to get some feedback about how initial behavior has been, as well as to get some tips to help make the experience better for everyone.

Quit Touching What Isn’t Yours

First off, stop touching things. Seriously. The number one complaint I heard is guests walking through and touching surfaces that aren’t related to their table. That means the backs of chairs that aren’t with your group, countertops anywhere that aren’t the bathroom and even silverware rolls or tables that aren’t where you’re sitting. I know for many of us that seems insane, but I heard it enough that I felt it needed included. Anything touched needs to be cleaned/replaced, and it eats up a lot of time out of the waitstaff’s shift. I know it’s tempting to give in to your childlike nature and to just lay hands on anything you can reach at any given moment, but with all the things staff are dealing with already in order to ensure the safest dining experience, they don’t need more on their plate because your fingers felt frisky.

“At the end of the night, when we had one table left, I had just finished fully sanitizing everything, and as this group got up to leave, they managed to touch seven clean tables on their way out. My hands are constantly burning,” waitress Mackenzie Walters told us. Speaking of, that brings us to our next point of order

Time Is Energy

Speaking with Melinda Walsh, waitress and self-proclaimed bar wench, she told me that she, “hopes that people who decide to dine out can be extra patient with their servers taking longer than normal to do things. I personally am taking extra precautions to wash my hands and/or change gloves every single time I touch a dirty plate, glass, napkins, cash, what have you. It may not sound like a lot, but with all of the extra sanitation that is necessary right now, doing my job takes me twice as long. It’s very stressful.”

While many of us acknowledge that the world has changed, some of us still hold onto old ideals in the hopes that things stay the same. The normal steps of service for a single table have a whole new set of follow-ups to them, and inevitably will take more time to complete. Now multiply that times however many tables an eating establishment has at any given moment, and it becomes easy to see how things will naturally slow down. Patience is a virtue, and on top of their fear we spoke on earlier, waitstaff now have more work to do—in addition to having to wear a mask constantly. Choose kindness in these times. You made the decision to sit in and eat, and they had no choice but to comply. The least you can do is understand that they’re doing the best they can in a situation with little agency.

Mask Yourself Another Question

On the topic of masks, also understand that while you can take yours off at any time, it’s best to help minimize risk and wait until you need it off. I know how tempting it is to take it off, much like an ill-fitting bra after a 12-hour shift, but the goal is to ensure there is as little spread of the respiratory droplets that can spread COVID-19 as possible. So when is it appropriate? Most servers I spoke with said once the drinks make it to the table, it is logical to have masks off for the meal. No one is expecting you to wear it during mealtime, because logistically, that gets messy. But it is worth noting that if you leave the table for any reason, no matter what stage of the meal you’re at, the mask should be put back on until you’ve returned to your seat. Imagine you’re on a foreign planet with a toxic atmosphere, and the only way to traverse outside your ship (table) is with a filtration system (a mask). You can even pretend your watch is a communicator, and talk into it while looking around suspiciously. On second thought, probably best to lose that bit of the analogy.

Maybe You’re Less Helpful Than You Think

Pre-corona, it was a kind gesture to help organize the table. At this point, regardless of best intentions, leave your table as is and let the staff handle the correct way to clean it. Yes, maybe it is easier to stack everything into one pile, but it may mean more work for the service staff. This includes handing them a dirty plate or silverware. “When someone tries to hand me a fork, I have to tell them I don’t do direct hand-offs because it’s a CDC guideline, and that gets me an eyeroll,” said Walters. Whether you agree with it or not, the rules are in place in order to maintain safety in reopening. You’ve made the choice to dine in, so you need to follow the rules. Trust in them to do what is best for their safety, and everything should go smoothly. I promise, it’s a lot easier than you think.

Bracing For Tracing

I get it. The government already knows too much about our comings and goings as is. For those unaware, contact tracing works like this. You go to a coffee shop, you order your drink, and then stand far in the back and wait for it to be called. While there, you notice a sign up sheet on a table asking for your name, number and the day and time of your visit. A week later, you get a phone call that while you were there, someone who is confirmed COVID-19 positive was there, and you’ve potentially been exposed. This allows you to get tested sooner and reduce exposing others, thereby helping flatten one person’s infection rate to others. System updates were pushed to phones back in April/May to lay the groundwork for contact tracing apps that would let you know if and when you were exposed to an infected individual, a collaborative project from Google and Apple. (Bad news for Windows phone users and your uncle who still has a Blackberry with a physical keyboard.) At this point, you’re splitting hairs. Yeah it is weird to leave my name and number when I buy coffee, because when I did that in the past, any person I gave it to never called me anyways. But now, it can help you prevent infecting friends and family. Speaking with Walters, she said, “No one is willing to participate in contact tracing, so we will have no idea if someone we served tests positive.” That means that they risk bringing back the virus to family members they may live with, and can’t ensure they stay safe. While your server may be young, healthy and potentially unaffected by COVID-19, that doesn’t mean everyone within the living space they share is. I hate to harp on compassion and understanding, but it really is the cornerstone of keeping things open and running smoothly.

Social Distance Dancing

It’s not easy. This was never going to be easy. What we are doing now is a global effort to protect each other, and yes, that means some selflessness. We can support our favorite restaurants in so many ways right now, and help keep the staff safe, while they are working to maintain their basic living needs. We all want normalcy, but in order to achieve that, it takes a little effort from everyone. It won’t be a perfect replica of our old style of living, but damned if we can’t make the new normal cool and enjoyable. “You don’t want the guest to notice all the effort you’re putting [in], but right now I need you to participate in this effort with me. Restaurants desperately need guests to participate in the magical facade that is ‘service is easy.’ We need you to be a part of this dance,” Walters said. So dance with your staff. It’s a game of give-and-take. They’re giving extra energy and effort to make things as pleasant for you as possible. Work with them to make sure that they’re not expending it for nothing. And for all that is good and sacred in this world, please tip as generously as you can. We’ve made them essential workers, and they should be compensated as such.
Service Industry Faces More Challenges During the Pandemic

Jarrad Wilson, masked and gloved, drops off food at a table at Slate Street Cafe.

Dan Pennington

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