As Delta and Omicron threaten to once again shutter restaurants across the country, here are some ways that diners can stand up for the places and people who keep them fed and nourished.
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Unseated table in a restaurant dining room
Credit: Getty Images

If you're suddenly feeling a sense of deja vu dusted with a soupçon of dread, pull up a chair and get settled in. We're probably going to be here for a while. After a year-plus of anxiety, uncertainty, loss, and sacrifice in every sector of our lives, it seemed as if—fingers crossed—we'd collectively gotten the better of this pandemic. That maybe we'd begun to emerge, rumpled and blinking, into if not our old reality, at least a credible cover version of it that we could all sing along to, albeit in a different key. Have the vaccination proof ready to present at the host stand, forehead bared for the temperature gun, camera app aimed at the QR code. You get used to things quickly when you need to.

But then the needle scratch came in the form of Delta, Omicron, and various other coronavirus mutations that spread exponentially quicker than previous incarnations, and are causing breakthrough infections (though with fewer hospitalizations) in people who are fully vaccinated, and even in some who have received their booster shots. A painful number of restaurants simply couldn't afford to remain open during the initial wave of coronavirus and shuttered forever. Many restaurants that had been able to weather the storm by maintaining robust outdoor seating arrangements last year when indoor dining was banned or capacity capped are now finding necessary cold-weather supplies, like propane and heat lamps, in short or prohibitively expensive supply. Similarly scarce are restaurant workers. Many left the industry over the past year and a half, fed up with or simply unable to weather the high-stress, low-wage, eternally unstable working conditions that have been the industry standard for decades, and which are now compounded by the role of having to enforce Covid protocols to an often hostile public.

If the industry was hanging on by a thread before, it's now down to a single strand. Right at the moment that workers were counting on holiday bookings to help them recover from the year's shortfall, the spread of the new variants is causing countless restaurants to stop service and shutter for days if a single employee tests positive. The dining public—already beleaguered by, you know, everything—is undoubtedly weary of hearing this tune on endless repeat, but here we go once more with feeling: If you want your favorite restaurants to survive, you have to help. Here's how.

Dine in or take out.

"Remember how often you ate out before the pandemic hit, and if you have the financial ability to do so—even if you're not going to dine in the restaurant—order from those same restaurants. Do that as often as you would have pre-pandemic. Find a way to bring it home and have that experience, because a steady customer base is probably the best gift that you can give any restaurant or bar.

And yes, you should tip on carry-out. When you are ordering food to go, there is still a lot of labor happening in that kitchen, and even more so to pack it up so that you can actually get it home and have it intact. My personal rule is that if I have the financial ability to do so, I'm going to tip twice as much in the pandemic as I would in the Before Times, because these people are putting their lives at risk to go to work and make me a meal." — Erika Polmar, co-founder and executive director of the Independent Restaurant Coalition 

Work with us.

"Have patience with us and be open to understanding how this ongoing pandemic specifically affects our individual businesses on a day-to-day basis. From more stringent regulations and ever-changing protocols coming down on us, to the rising price of food which forces us to raise prices in the middle of a pandemic where a record number of people are unemployed—not to mention, the difficulty filling positions at an affordable cost—some of us are still really getting beat up by this thing. It has been difficult balancing all of these obstacles while trying to operate in this air of uncertainty. Especially when all we want to do is serve you, and make you happy. 

We don't want to raise prices and don't necessarily want to enforce masks and distancing and all of these things, but we have to if we want to stay open. Sometimes the wait times are long, sometimes we don't get things right. But we are trying and so just being patient and kind and understanding is a wonderful way of supporting. People want to come out, and we want them to come out, so just work with us to make sure we are able to provide a safe and enjoyable experience." — Charles Martin, chef-owner of Right Choice Catering Co.

Pay it forward.

"Any money that you're going to spend in a restaurant is going to help. If your favorite restaurant sells t-shirts or bandanas or tote bags or gift cards, buy them. Gift cards are tricky. The best way you could support a restaurant is to buy a gift card and burn it. But whatever your restaurant is selling, buy it. If your neighborhood restaurant has a GoFundMe and you can afford to donate, donate. Whatever you can do to keep the people that make you food and make you feel good when you visit them afloat is really important." — Erika Polmar, co-founder and executive director of the Independent Restaurant Coalition 

Show solidarity.

"Besides the obvious ways like frequenting the dining rooms, ordering takeout, and gift cards and such, the best way that diners can support restaurants is by showing solidarity in the choices that owners make in regards to taking care of their employees, and policies they put in place to ensure the safety of the staff and patrons alike. It is one thing to like things on social media or to even show support in those arenas, but it is truly different when your actions are shown in those actual moments of need. 

An example is a recent encounter with a woman that was yelling at one of my staff members due to our masking and vaccination card policy. Screaming things like 'Nazi, sheep, idiots, etc.' Our patrons actually stood up for us and helped collect evidence of her behavior. After long hours, this is the last thing we need, and seeing our amazing community stand behind us really gives us hope." — Carlo Lamagna, owner of Magna Kusina and Food & Wine Best New Chef 2021

Share grace.

"As stressed out as you are, the person making and serving you food has that to an exponential degree. Even if you're really having a lousy day where you're yelling at the driver that cut you off, find a way to take a breath and remember that this person has literally put their life at risk to come to work and make sure that you have an enjoyable moment where you can escape. And the thing about grace and gratitude is that when you give it, it comes back to you in an amplified manner. So if you can shove away whatever it is that you're thinking in the moment and take a breath and speak with kindness and gratitude, you will find that it is amplified and mirrored in a way that you're nourished beyond the food that you're eating." — Erika Polmar, co-founder and executive director of the Independent Restaurant Coalition 

Be thankful.

"Something that I keep in mind when I'm out to eat, and have a guest's perspective: Be more patient with the entire experience, but also just be thankful to be out at a restaurant and make the most of it. I'm not saying to spend exuberant amounts of money, but just share your positive joy with the people you are eating with, the staff that is taking care of you and say 'thank you' in whatever way you see fit. It is such a treat to go out these days. Why not make it pleasurable for all?" — Paris Pryor, service and wine director at Francie

Take action. 

"We need every single person who loves restaurants and bars to pick up the phone and dial their representatives and leave a quick message saying, I value this restaurant in my community and that's the place where I got engaged, or that's the place that supported my Little League, or that's the place that I go when I'm having a really bad day, and I want that business and that staff to survive. Congressperson So-and-So, please act in the best interest of these restaurants and support them. That applies now, but it also applies three weeks from now, or five months from now.

A lot of folks don't realize how important their voice is in government. If you remember Schoolhouse Rock, a small group of people went to their congressman and said, 'We need to do X, Y and Z.' The congressman said, 'You're right. There ought to be a law.' And they voted on a bill. Somehow we've forgotten that, as the government has seemed further and further away.. 

Restaurant diners are always very vocal. They're the first folks to write a review. They're the first folks to take a picture of their food. When you take a picture of your great meal, post it and tag your congressperson and say, "Thank you so much for supporting the Restaurant Revitalization Fund," or, "Senator Schumer, thank you for supporting the restaurants," and that you need the restaurants to still be around. It's that easy. It's something that our diners do already. We're just adding that little extra bit to make sure your government knows how much you love your restaurants." — Erika Polmar, co-founder and executive director of the Independent Restaurant Coalition 

Spread the word.

The hospitality industry is fueled equally by business and artistry. Supporting your favorite restaurant means supporting both of those sources or energy. The business part is easy: go often if you can, order direct if you can't visit, and introduce your friends through group dinners and gift cards at the holidays. Supporting the artistry is more nuanced and is rooted in respect. Show up on time, be understanding of gaps in service, engage in the details of the menu, and comment on aspects of the experience you particularly like, even simple things like the soundtrack or the lightning. — Bo Peabody, co-founder of Seated