Coronavirus Has a Trickle-Down Effect on Waitstaff's Wellbeing
Editor's note: This story was originally published March 13, and since then the writer's place of employment is following New York City public health guidelines and shutting down table service. Please follow him on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest updates on his situation and how he is trying to rally his community.
The news of the coronavirus spreading across the country reminds me of the time I dropped a gallon container of honey mustard in the walk-in refrigerator at the restaurant where I worked. It hit the floor and that coagulation of high fructose corn syrup and FD&C Yellow No. 5 slowly oozed across the tiles. Paper towels weren’t going to clean that up and neither was a mop. A broom and dustpan might do the trick, but it wasn’t going to be easy and no matter how it was cleaned, there was going to be residual stickiness on the floor for days, if not weeks to come.
That’s what the coronavirus feels like to me. It’s spreading with intention and every second we take to pause and think about how to clean it up, it’s slinking a little bit further along. The honey mustard got into every crevice of that grouted tile, much like the coronavirus is consuming every wrinkle and fold of my brain.
I still work in a restaurant and I’m seeing the trickle-down effects of the virus every time I clock in. Each day, there are fewer customers and more time in between each one. That lull has at least given me the time to wash my hands for the full recommended 20 seconds instead of the quick rinse-off-and-hope-for-the-best that usually happens. With people scrambling to hoard every last roll of toilet paper and bottle of hand sanitizer, it seems they have less time to go out to dinner. Or maybe it’s that after spending obscene amounts of money on paper towels at Costco, they just don’t have enough left over to spend on a pan-roasted cod with mashed potatoes, baby bok choy, and miso sauce. Fewer customers means less money for me, and less money means less bill paying.
My other concern is catching my very own case of COVID-19. Maybe I wouldn’t be so worried about this whole pandemic thing if I knew all servers had paid sick days, but most of us don’t. There are plenty of restaurant managers who will insist we either show up sick, get our shift covered, or prove we have a globe-trotting communicable virus by bringing in a doctor’s note. There have been times at work when I used every fiber of my being to keep a drop of mucus from dripping from my nose onto my server book while I was asking a guest what temperature they'd like for their burger to be cooked. Until I have a low-grade fever, sore throat, or cough, I’ll go to work and serve those who want to eat out.
If you feel like going out to dinner and haven't spent all of your disposable income on paper products, think about going to a local neighborhood restaurant. You know, the one you walk past every day on your way to the grocery store? You ate there once when you first moved to the neighborhood and you liked it, but you never made it back again. Maybe now’s the time.
I’ve worked for nine years in a restaurant three blocks from my apartment. After learning that Broadway shows were going dark for four weeks, The Metropolitan Museum of Art was closing down, and major sporting events had been canceled, I didn’t know what to expect at my next dinner shift. We opened at 5 p.m. and like clockwork, two of my Thursday night regulars came in. Minutes later, another couple who come in every Thursday showed up. And then another.
“We thought you could use the patronage,” Molly said when she breezed through the door. It made me feel good that maybe for the hour these folks were in my section, they might be able to forget about the craziness of the day. The coronavirus has made our future uncertain and we don’t know if it’s like “I need to buy some extra canned goods” uncertain or “it’s a thinning of the herd kind of situation” uncertain. The only thing we can be sure of is uncertainty, and there’s a sense of comfort for me in being OK with the unknown. The last thing the owner of the restaurant said to me at the end of the shift was, “I’m gonna stay open for as long as I can.” “Well, I’ll be here as long as you’re open,” I told him.
Nobody knows when going out to dinner is going to tumble off the list of things people are allowed to do. Until then, if you feel comfortable with going out to eat, we in the service industry would appreciate it. It might be slow at the restaurant, but that means you’ll probably get better service. If you didn’t spend all of your money stockpiling jars of peanut butter and frozen dinners, you could make your server’s night by throwing down a couple of extra dollars for the tip. But honestly, we’ll be happy to see you either way. Just be sure to wash your hands after you handle the menu, and please don’t order honey mustard from me.