Maskless and demanding customers, 25% capacity, diminished tips, and precarious heater-and-tarp setups make this season extra scary for waitstaff already struggling to survive.

By Darron Cardosa
October 06, 2020
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Credit: Noam Galai / Getty Images

On September 22, the autumnal equinox made its appearance known with slightly cooler temperatures and trees morphing into a kaleidoscope of burgundies, oranges, and harvest golds. The seasonal transition makes some people think about which sweater they can wear again, while others have an internal clock that goes off inside their brains triggering an intense craving for all things pumpkin spice. This is the time of year when decorative gourds become a very real fixation. But for servers, this change in weather makes us think of something else entirely, namely what does this mean for outdoor dining

Until recently, here in New York City, restaurants and those of us who work in them have been subsisting solely on outdoor dining, serving food on beautifully landscaped patios or on tables dragged out to a sidewalk, parking lot or bike lane. Rain or shine, wind or humidity, mosquitos or rats, we servers are doing our best to offer some sense of normalcy as we approach our seventh month of living through a pandemic and we want that normalcy for ourselves as much as our customers do. Indoor dining began in New York City on September 30th when we were allowed to fill our restaurants to 25% capacity, but that step toward ordinary isn’t as satisfying as I’d like it to be. 

I worry that not enough people will feel comfortable dining inside without wearing a mask, and that there won’t be enough customers for us to financially survive. Everyone has been trained to wear masks in the grocery store, on the subway, at work, and even at the gym, and now it’s expected that everyone will suddenly feel safe enough to take them off for an hour inside a restaurant so they can have a server bring them some baby back ribs and french fries? Working in a restaurant that’s only seating at 25% capacity, it’s already going to be a struggle to make enough money in tips, but if we can’t reach 25%, it’s going to be even tougher to pay our bills.

I worry that as the air gets chillier, fewer and fewer people will be willing to sit outside to eat their meals and my customers will dwindle. Serving outdoors in the open air these last few months, it’s as if the wind was keeping me safe from COVID germs, but in 50-degree weather, nobody wants to order a bowl of steaming potato leek soup and end up eating vichyssoise instead. The one saving grace of serving food in the brisk air will be that it’ll no longer matter that people don’t listen to me when I tell them the plate is hot because the north wind will make sure that’s a non-issue.  

I worry for my boss who might feel the need to spend money he doesn’t really have to buy space heaters in order to encourage customers to continue dining al fresco. He might buy plastic tarps and try to create walls to keep the wind from turning hot tea into iced tea, but do space heaters and plastic tarps really go hand in hand? Besides, Old Man Winter will find a way to creep into wherever we try to keep him out and this Middle Aged Waiter can’t handle the thought of adjusting an actual gas flame for someone who is “a teensy bit warm” as they sip their hot chocolate. 

I worry that as more people choose to eat indoors rather than fighting the chill of outdoors, they will become more lax about wearing a mask. Our city recently saw a 3.25% Covid positivity rate, the first time it’s been that high in months. Sure, I’ll be wearing a mask the whole time I’m at work, but my customers won’t be. I’d like to think that they’ll all lift their masks back over their mouths and noses each time I approach a table, but these are some of the same people who can hardly find it in themselves to acknowledge me when I pour them a glass of water. Clearly, I am not their priority. I could be putting myself in harm’s way in exchange for a verbal tip and a half-hearted thank you. 

I worry that my job requirements will ballon into more responsibilities. Already, I’m the host, the bartender, the busser, the waiter and the food runner, but now I’m going to be a healthcare worker doing temperature checks for every customer who walks through the door and also a social worker collecting information for contact tracing. Maybe these are new skills I can add to my resume, right after “problem solving,” “attention to detail,” and “go-getter.” 

The one thing I don’t worry about is acclimating. Waiters and waitresses are accustomed to making things work. We’re the same people who figured out how to balance three plates on one arm just so we don’t have to make two trips to the kitchen. The colder weather driving customers indoors to eat will be our next hurdle to leap over and we’ll do it with aplomb. The main difference from usual is that our masks will keep our customers from seeing the smile on our faces. Instead, we’ll purse our lips, grit our teeth and tackle this new adjustment with a steely reserve, more assuredly than we can hold a scorching plate with our printless fingers and thumbs. We servers will get through it exactly like everyone else is doing, but I sure wouldn’t mind a few more weeks of mild temperatures and warm summer air.