Even as lockdowns end and businesses reopen, nothing is back to normal. Here’s what it’s like working at a restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic, from servers across the country.

Pre-pandemic, I worked as a dining room captain in a 2-Michelin star restaurant in Manhattan. When the general manager wrote this week to say that we wouldn’t be opening back up until September at the earliest, my gut reaction was one of relief. It was the same kind of relief that I felt each time New York City extended the lockdown, and then when its restaurants were approved for outdoor dining only, with indoor on hold for the foreseeable future. This is a departure from the sense of disorientation I experienced in mid-March when the collective rug got pulled out from underneath all of us that count restaurant income as a sure bet.

As cities around the country have rebounded, and in some cases, relapsed, restaurants and bars seem to be where the line is drawn—at least until school is back in session—between personal health and economic health. I know all too well the relationship that exists between hands and mouths in a restaurant setting; it will take a massive adjustment of muscle memory to accommodate gloves and masks, even for those restaurants who take the challenge head on and with a lot of concern for both their staff and guests, and not just the bottom line.

Related Reading: 7 New Rules of Restaurant Etiquette

While I have been absolved thus far from weighing my own health and restlessness against my future earning potential, I checked in with several friends around the country who have gone back to restaurant work, to get a sense of their take on things. Now that the frontline has shifted to include some restaurant workers, especially front of house staff, how were they feeling about their own comfort and safety, the support from their restaurants, and the relationship with patrons who are also having some of their first dining out experiences in a long while? What else is on their mind?

On Choosing Unemployment vs. Reemployment 

So long as the stimulus is still in play, this seems to be a real point of order. Several people pointed out that what they were making on unemployment was better, at least consistently so, than what they’d be making per week while working, especially in the summer.

But on the other hand, when unemployment runs out, will available jobs be scarce? Is it better to get a foot back in the door early? Every restaurant seems to have a different policy regarding rehiring, whether seniority or previous performance is factored in. Will former staff be competing against other talented employees whose restaurants may have shuttered for good? 

Related Reading: 7 Easy Ways to Support Your Local Businesses

“Anyone can technically do your job,” said one server in Florida. There are obviously different degrees of skill and personality needed to handle it, but no one server or bartender is irreplaceable. A server in New York echoed that feeling: “There’s a moment when someone asks if you’re willing, and you’re worried about the unemployment benefit ending. Everyone was happy to do their duty to stay home and get paid, but when someone’s implying that your job’s on the line…”

But businesses could also get burned by people avoiding having the “are you coming back?” conversations with their managers altogether. “I treat my staff like family,” said a manager in Massachusetts, “and getting snubbed by half my staff [when they were able to reopen for outdoor seating] was kind of heartbreaking. I had to risk myself to be here, and you can’t even respond or give me an excuse?”

And what happens, at least in the northern U.S, when the weather stops supporting outdoor dining? “I’m employed and I’m terrified,” a bartender in New York told me. “We don’t have an indoor dining date set, so I have to deal with the fact that this could just be temporary, because we can’t do outdoor dining in December.”

On Masks and Other PPE

Don't Leave Home without ItThe Right Way to Wear & Wash a Cloth MaskDoubtlessly there will be no shortage of online videos depicting altercations where someone being asked to wear a mask has…strong feelings about the subject…but the reports from the frontlines that I surveyed paint a rosier picture, at least for the most part.

A server in Florida whose restaurant was opening as early as the first week of May had this to report: “I came into the restaurant to check in, and the first thing my boss says to me is, ‘Why are you wearing a mask…are you sick?’” Now, that was nearly three months ago, and we’re learning how that kind of mentality worked out, and perception is shifting among restaurant operators.

Everyone I spoke to recently said that masks and gloves were made available by their employers and were plentiful, and what’s more they got used to wearing them while working very quickly. “There are gloves literally everywhere,” said a bartender in New York. “I just have to believe that the mask protects me,” said a server in Texas. A bartender in North Carolina added, “It’s a minor inconvenience, it’s not ruining my life.”

Masks with the dining public seem to work best when the restaurant clearly delineates what is expected of them. A restaurant in New York has the staff outlining their policy tableside: “at the table feel free to take your mask off, but when you roam around you need to put your mask back on.” Of course there will always be someone who pushes back, a la, “what are you, the mask police?”  One staff member offered how he feels in such situations: “Is this the hill you want to die on? Literally?”

Related Reading: Where to Buy Masks Online | Where to Buy Face Masks for Kids Online

On Learning to Do Things Differently

It’s no small matter to retrain your muscles to do something differently, especially when the average server might be accustomed to doing something in a certain way, and upwards of hundreds of times in a single shift. “Nothing was the same,” said a manager in Massachusetts of his outdoor dining reopening. “There were new protocols, new systems, an abridged menu…”

That any new safety systems in place are for the benefit of guests and staff alike doesn’t make them immediately easy to adopt. “It’s obnoxiously hard to put your wet hands into a dry glove,” a server in New York told me, and they’re doing it every 15 to 30 minutes. “I wonder if everyone is on top of changing them. I’m not complaining about that, but it takes time.”

What’s encouraging is when new protocols seem to be suited for long term adjustment, and not just as a Band-Aid for the current environment. “We aren’t doing anything that we can’t sustain, and that makes me feel really safe,” said a bartender in New York.

What Happens if You Feel Sick?

coronavirus: how to self quarantine when you live with other people

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This is an arena where hopefully restaurants will change for the better long term, but it remains to be seen. Because of the team-oriented nature of the work, and because restaurant staff don’t often receive benefits like meaningful sick pay, there has been an expectation of working while sick, unless you’re sick enough to need medical attention. Now that we live in a world where nearly any symptom could signify coronavirus, the policies should change, but have they?

In Texas one server had this to say: “If a server doesn’t feel well they work anyway, it’s always been that way, and when unemployment ends, it will be that way again. There were a few people who did get COVID-19 and they had to stay home for two weeks, but the company didn’t make them retest when they returned.”

On the other hand, a manager in Massachusetts was more adamant: “If someone gets sick, you’re out of the building, we’re cleaning everything, and you’re getting tested.”

On Relationships with Guests

Again, bad behavior will always make for good Instagram stories, but my comrades reported happier news where their customers were concerned.

“What’s getting me is the majority of people who come in are so happy to be out and about and that we’re open. It’s like 98 percent of everyone is happy,” said one bartender in New York. (This high a percentage would be a dream in normal times.) Another server in New York agreed: “People are being more compassionate and understanding. [Restaurants] offer a sense of normalcy.”

The sense of normalcy also applies to the staff, for those who have returned. “It didn’t really hit me until we got in the restaurant and people were coming in to dine and I was like, ‘Oh my god I miss this so much,’” said a bartender in North Carolina. “When you’re a social being, after being at home so much, that whole aspect of what’s feeding your energy and your soul was missing. I almost cried, I was so happy to be around people.” 

I’ve enjoyed the street festival atmosphere of the makeshift street-side dining rooms that have sprung up in my Queens neighborhood. I’ve even patronized a few. I’m personally not ready to go back to working, and I’m glad I haven’t had to make the decision yet, but of course this is a two-sided coin, as I can also identify with missing it. Restaurant work can be energizing and kinetic, and there’s very little work—or even working out—that can be done from home to combat the restlessness.

Coping with Coronavirus Quarantine & What to Know as Lockdown Ends

Header image courtesy of Juanmonino/Getty Images.

Pamela Vachon is a freelance writer based in Astoria, NY whose work has also appeared on CNET, Cheese Professor, Alcohol Professor, and Diced. She is also a certified sommelier, voiceover artist, and an avid lover of all things pickled or fermented.
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