The city of Chicago has increased the maximum number of customers allowed inside restaurants. Chicago officials have adjusted COVID-19 restrictions and will now allow restaurants to serve at a 50 percent maximum capacity (up from 40 percent). Chicago’s liquor stores can now alcohol later into the night, with the cutoff moved from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. As more and more bars and restaurants are starting to reopen, the city has also extended on-premise operating times from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.
The order goes into effect immediately.
It’s been two weeks since the city moved to 40 percent capacity, and Illinois Restaurant Association president and CEO Sam Toia says his membership expected an announcement from the city. The current rule allows for a 40 percent maximum or 50 people per room — whatever number is lower. The 50-person limit remains unchanged.
Tables remain at a six-person limit and parties should still be seated six feet from each other. At a time when industry workers continue to wait for their chance at a COVID-19 vaccine, customers must wear their masks unless they are eating or drinking. Workers, including bartenders, should continue to wear masks at all times.
While the city wouldn’t move on the 50-person limit, Toia says the city has shown interest in loosening restrictions for venues that use plexiglass barriers to separate parties. The use of barriers helps protect customers from larger spray-born droplets released when people cough or talk loudly (the type of chatter that often occurs at bars). But health experts say smaller droplets can still get around the shields.
Toia is also hopeful that the city will soon examine its private event restrictions. He expects to see more communions, bar mitzvahs, and weddings this spring, and the current cap for private events in Chicago is at 50. The association would like to see that number increase to 100 to 150.
Meanwhile, as stories of service worker anxiety and disrespectful customers continue to crop up in Chicago, Toia says he’s pressing Mayor Lori Lightfoot to allow restaurant and bar workers to be vaccinated earlier. Right now, the city’s health department is targeting March 29 when those employees would be eligible: “Restaurant workers are essential workers, just like grocery workers,” Toia says.
Increasing capacity without making workers eligible for vaccinations has sent a conflicting message to employees in Chicago, who see their fellow restaurant workers in Detroit and New York City being vaccinated. The narrative is that the government views workers as disposable, as this essay in Bon Appétit posits.
Still, public health experts advise caution in reopening businesses. At a Monday White House briefing, Rochelle Walensky — the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — warned that Americans need to continue to use caution when loosening rules designed to limit the risk of contracting COVID-19.
Indoor dining returned to Chicago in late January at a 25 percent maximum capacity after state and city officials mandated the closure of dining rooms in late October.
The image of the traditional restaurant critic — an older white man, surreptitious in appearance yet hearty in appetite, issuing snobbish judgments from behind a white tablecloth— was out of date long before the pandemic hit. White men aren’t the only ones who have worthwhile opinions on restaurants; upscale iterations of French or Italian cuisine aren’t the only foods worth talking about; and anonymity, the sacred shield of the restaurant critic, doesn’t necessarily work the way it used to. (As the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic Soleil Ho put it, “I am a millennial and I’ve been on the internet for 15 years — it’s really hard to cover up my tracks at this point.”)
Such shifts in the world of criticism and food writing broadly were already underfoot; then came the pandemic, which rocked the entire restaurant industry (not to mention media) to its core. So we invited Boston Globe restaurant critic and food writer Devra First, New York Times restaurant critic Tejal Rao, and food writer and host of the podcast A Hungry Society presents Boundless Horizon Korsha Wilson to discuss how criticism has changed in the past year and where it’s headed.
Below are lightly edited excerpts from the conversation, part of our Eater Talks event series, as well as a full video recording. For more ways on how to help the restaurant community, check out Eater’s How to Help guide.
COVID-19 pushed food writers to move beyond traditional restaurant reviews.
Tejal Rao: “Around March, I had a conversation with my editors [at the New York Times]: Should I keep filing weekly reviews? Should I rethink the restaurant review? And I decided I didn’t want to write straightforward reviews at all. So I did more, like, weird essays and policy reporting and just a mixture of pieces — like first-person stories about how to think about takeout in this moment, or how my relationship with cars has changed. Just looking at it from every possible angle.”
Devra First: “At the beginning, when indoor dining shut down and it wasn’t clear what was going to happen, I was like [to my editors at the Boston Globe], ‘Hey, what if we do a daily newsletter about cooking right now?’ And we just banged that out into the ether. We didn’t know what to do or how we were going to cover it; for the first month or so, it was a lot of guesswork and figuring out what what does it all mean for restaurants and for us. It was pretty tumultuous, but it’s settling in now. Where I work, at the Boston Globe, they’ve also really deeply sympathetic to the situation with restaurants. We started this thing called Project Takeout just encouraging readers to get takeout as much they’re able to. It’s been an interesting see us do sort of like boosterism on behalf of the [restaurant] industry, which was a stance that we never would have taken before.”
The pandemic accelerated the shrinking of journalism budgets.
Wilson: “When the pandemic started, there was this very scary constricting of freelance opportunities, because people [in media] were unsure about ad budgets and if they even have freelance budgets going forward.”
Rao: “The loss of alt weeklies and blogs and a lot of those spaces — I am just forever devastated about that. Those spaces are so vital for local reporting, but also, for me, that was my journalism school. I wouldn’t have I wouldn’t have become a critic if I hadn’t gotten a job at the Village Voice.”
As restaurants and media change, more diverse voices are emerging within food writing.
Wilson: “I have the very fortunate position as a freelancer of being able to look at the [food media] landscape and say, ‘Okay, what stories do I wish existed in the landscape right now?’ and then pitch those to the places where I think it makes the most sense. That’s the same thing I do with my podcasts… For me, it’s really important to highlight people of color that don’t get a lot of attention. So it’s been a refocusing or a doubling-down on what I cover already, which is: really talented folks who are adding a lot and not getting the attention they deserve.”
First: “I think that we need to look toward different pipelines. I do think that the people writing nationally who get information from local critics on the ground have cultivated other sources as well, and maybe more different kinds of voices. I hope in some ways that that pipeline, while getting constricted in some ways, will then broaden in a different way to make up that difference. Certainly, we’re going to see fewer and fewer restaurant critics around the country. So I guess we need to ask what that means, what readers want, what the public needs, and how do we look towards the future and think about how are we going to get this to people going forward?”
Wilson: “For [restaurant coverage] to be dynamic, a lot of different people need to have their voices included. You know, America isn’t just white men. That’s not a newsflash. But for a long time, restaurant critics have been cisgendered white men. So what perspectives are left out of food criticism when that happens? In order for restaurant criticism to continue to grow, different voices have to be at the table and talking about why restaurants matter, and why their food is good, or the service is good. As restaurants change, the people covering them needs to change too.”
With more voices involved, restaurant critics are covering far more ground.
Wilson: “An Eater Chicago op-ed about the loss of the food critic there referred to food critics as ‘arbiters of taste,’ and I disagree with that a bit. I think food critics are journalists, essentially, and they’re covering the food beat in whatever region that they’re in. And then national food critics are looking at the landscape of America’s restaurant scene and talking about the changes and important players and different cuisines that are available. I think looking at it holistically like that — instead of just ‘this is good, or this is bad’ — is really where criticism needs to go.”
Rao: “Should critics consider all the vital issues of their moment, like labor, inequities, exclusion — all the forces that we don’t immediately see and how they shape our culture and our restaurants and all the spaces we move in? Like, yeah, that has to be part of the job, even if it’s not part of every single story. That has to be part of what’s driving the work. I don’t think of myself as an ‘arbiter of taste.’”
First: “It’s really important for critics to continue to point out what needs to change, where there are weak points, where culturally there are problems — to really wrestle with the issues of American culture through the dining lens.”
Rao: “So much of what has been illuminated this past year wasn’t new, it has been around for a long time, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere — the racial injustice, the physical costs to workers, the structural inequalities running all along the supply chain, the environmental costs. Our food system is so broken and so dysfunctional, and people are suffering because of it. And I think criticism can serve many roles, including continuing to shine a light on these issues.
That’s not its only role, but I’m thinking a lot about the power of that attention now. Like, where do I keep the reader’s attention when I have it? What do I want to make them think about? Pleasure is a way in, this delicious food is a way in, hopefully good writing is a way in — and then you have the reader’s attention, and what are you gonna do with it?”
Frustrated by both the recent violence towards Asian Americans and its lack of coverage in the mainstream media, a small coalition of New York City’s top Asian-American chefs and restaurant owners have formed a grassroots initiative called #EnoughIsEnough. Its focus is to donate meals to homeless shelters that serve largely Asian-American, Black, and brown populations while raising awareness. In addition to the meal donations, the group organized a virtual cooking class held on February 22. All of the 22 restaurants involved are small, beloved local places, many with no more than 30 seats, but together they are making good on the initiative’s mission: to show the power of collective action.
While Enough Is Enough has met its goal of raising $25,000, any donations made past that mark will be given to charities that help Asian communities in need, such as Send Chinatown Love, and Welcome to Chinatown, and Yin Chang and Moonlynn Tsai’s Heart of Dinner. “By showing up, using our voices, and standing up against against hate in the Asian American community, we can hopefully lead by example,” says Fish Cheeks co-owner Jennifer Saesue.
Fish Cheeks is a seafood-focusedThai restaurant in New York’s NoHo. One of its most requested orders is crab meat-studded fried rice; made with dried-out jasmine rice, it has been on the menu since the restaurant opened. Below, Fish Cheeks co-owners Saesue and Ohm Suansilphong share its recipe in full. Give it a try for yourself at home the next time you have dried-out jasmine rice,; you’ll find that the recipe is uncomplicated, and will no doubt enjoy the extra layer of flavor added by the chicken powder.
Fish Cheeks Crab Fried Rice
1 1/2 ounces canola oil 2 eggs 1 cup cooked jasmine rice that has been dried out over night 1/4 tablespoon salt 1/4 tablespoon sugar 1/4 tablespoon chicken powder, preferably Knorr 1 teaspoon soy sauce 4 ounces crab meat 1 bunch scallions, chopped Cilantro to garnish
Step 1: Heat a large pan over high heat. Once hot, add the oil. Lower the heat to medium, and add the eggs. Scramble them until they’re almost cooked through.
Step 2: Add the rice, making sure to break it up so that it heats evenly.
Step 3: Add the salt, sugar, chicken powder, and soy sauce. Mix well.
Step 4: Add the crab meat. Once it’s heated through, remove the pan from the heat and add the scallions.
A new report out today has revealed that dozens of New York restaurant workers saw their tips reduced after the city temporarily allowed restaurants to tack on an optional surcharge of up to 10 percent last October to recoup funds lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A majority of the restaurant workers surveyed for the report also said their tips had declined after trying to get customers to follow safety protocols, and that restaurant owners weren’t consistently enforcing safety guidelines at their establishments.
The report — created by One Fair Wage, the organization campaigning to create a full minimum wage for restaurant workers in New York excluding tips — included responses from 344 and 450 restaurants workers from NYC and New York State, respectively. NYC workers were surveyed between January 25 and 31 this year, and workers outside the city were surveyed last year between October 6 and November 10.
In NYC, 35 percent of the workers surveyed said their restaurants had adopted the surcharge, and 57 percent of those workers said that their tips had declined as a result. Many of the workers surveyed reported confusion among diners who believed that the surcharge was going toward covering staffer salaries, when in reality the surcharge can be applied to whatever costs the restaurant owner deems fit. Among the workers who reported a decline in tips, 43 percent said the decline was 25 percent or more.
This additional decline comes on top of employees already seeing their tips drop after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, according to the report. Fifty-nine percent of all restaurant workers surveyed indicated that their tips had declined since the start of the pandemic, and the problem was even more acute for Black restaurant workers, 75 percent of whom reported that their tips had declined by 50 percent or more.
The decline in tips can largely be attributed to restaurant workers having to enforce COVID-19 safety guidelines, according to the report. Sixty-five percent of workers surveyed reported that they lost tips after asking people to wear masks or attempting to enforce social distancing. The issue was once again more acute for Black workers, 71 percent of whom reported a drop in tips after trying to enforce safety measures.
Workers had to contend with these losses while largely feeling uncomfortable and unsafe about returning to work during the pandemic, according to the report. Forty-two percent of the workers surveyed reported an increased in sexual harassment by customers during the pandemic, including requests that servers remove their masks so they could see them smile and some people even hugging servers without their permission while not wearing masks.
Workers had to contend with health risks too, according to the report. Of the workers surveyed in the report, nearly 80 percent reported that their employers were not consistently following COVID-19 safety protocols. Among the safety issues, social distancing seemed to be the biggest cause for concern with only 57 percent of the workers surveyed reporting that their employers were encouraging them to maintain six feet of distance when possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has listed indoor dining among the highest risk activities for the spread of the virus, and even though indoor dining didn’t resume in NYC until February 12, it has continued in the rest of the state prior to that. In addition, restaurant workers only became eligible to receive vaccinations in early February.
The restaurant industry has been devastated since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than a 1,000 restaurants have closed in NYC, and hospitality industry insiders have predicted more closures without continued government aid and more long-term solutions for expenses like rent. In December alone, more than 11,000 restaurant and bar jobs disappeared, a 5.8 percent drop from the previous month. In the face of that continued uncertainty, workers surveyed in the One Fair Wage report say they felt like they had no choice but to return. With the continued safety risks and the decline in wages, however, four in 10 restaurant workers surveyed in NYC said they were considering leaving their jobs.
Plans to add surcharges to restaurant bills in NYC have been in the works for a few years, but legislators tied it to the drop in business due to the pandemic when it was approved by the New York City Council last fall. While groups like One Fair Wage aren’t opposed to the surcharge, per se, they asked that restaurants adopting the surcharge ensure that staffers are paid a $15 minimum wage excluding tips. With the industry facing historic losses, that request did not make it into the final piece of legislation.
Only seven states — including California, Oregon, and Washington, among others — ensure a full minimum wage for restaurant workers that does not include tips. Restaurant workers and advocates have campaigned for years to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Gov. Andrew Cuomo moved to do so last year, but left out restaurant workers. As it stands right now, restaurants in New York City can pay tipped workers a $10 base pay with a $5 tip credit, which means that if restaurant workers don’t automatically make $15 an hour with tips, owners will be required to meet that difference so it reaches $15 an hour.
Some in the industry support the present system, including the NYC Hospitality Alliance, which represents thousands of restaurants owners in the city, and the Restaurant Workers of America. The Alliance has previously said that a full minimum wage would further decimate an industry already reeling from a historic financial crisis. Proponents of the full minimum wage like One Fair Wage have countered by saying that the present system perpetuates racial and gender disparities in the industry. President Joe Biden has proposed a federal $15 minimum wage as part of his coronavirus relief bill, but at least two Senate Democrats are opposed to it, leaving the passage of this particular measure uncertain.
One of the things we love most about food is wine. Specifically, the wine you get to drink while dining out at your favorite restaurant, be it your go-to local joint or the fanciest place in town. This is wine selected by someone who knows what they’re doing — a professional who understands how to decode a label and what kind of grapes will make your food taste that much better. So what if, we wondered, we made it possible to experience that kind of hospitality right at home?
Get to know Eater Wine Club, a monthly wine subscription box. Our extensive network of local editors have teamed up with sommeliers and beverage directors from some of our favorite restaurants, bars, and shops across the country to curate a new experience each month, with ever-changing themes and bottles (two or four per box, your choice!) and plenty of perks. Sign up and you’ll get a box full of surprising and highly drinkable wines on your doorstep every month, plus an exclusive newsletter and an invite to our monthly wine party.
For March 2021, our wine curator is Rania Zayyat, the Texas-based wine director behind East Austin’s Bufalina. Rania’s theme is inspired by the wanderlust we all may be feeling these days, especially with winter still upon us: island wines from the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.
So join the club and invite your friends — from the one who geeks out over cool labels and funky tastes to the one who just wants you to hand them a glass of something delicious that’ll make their food pop. Sign up for Eater Wine Club here — we’ll see you at the party.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser opened up COVID-19 vaccinations to four new groups of workers this week, but customer-facing restaurant staff are still waiting for their turn despite being classified by the city as “essential” personnel throughout the pandemic.
Starting Thursday, February 18, people in the following categories could begin registering for vaccine appointments: grocery store workers, manufacturing workers, food packaging workers, and workers in health and human services or social outreach. Those groups are part of the final tier within Phase 1B of the District’s vaccination plan.
After announcing eligibility for those four groups Wednesday night, Bowser announced in her Thursday situational report that the city would start accepting appointments for people in Phase 1C — a category that includes restaurant workers — on March 1. The announcement, though, only listed one group that would be eligible to register for vaccination: people between 16 and 64 years old who can “self-attest” that they have one of 20 chronic illnesses that could make a case of the coronavirus more dangerous for them.
The plan D.C. shared in January lists food service workers as the next group behind people with qualifying medical conditions in Phase 1C Tier 1. Bowser had said in a news conference back in January that food service workers would be included in a category of residents with qualifying medical conditions and “other essential” workers that were targeted for February 1 enrollment.
In other words, the rollout is at least a month behind the projection. Meanwhile, the city continues to permit indoor dining — generally acknowledged at this point as a “high-risk” activity — at 25 percent capacity. Food service workers in New York are already eligible to get vaccinated, and they will be in San Francisco starting February 24.
According to figures DC Health shared Thursday, the city has delivered at least one dose of the vaccine to 50,680 people (7.2 percent of residents).
Here’s a look at everyone who is eligible to get a vaccine before and after D.C. restaurant workers, according to the plan the city released January 11.
Restaurant workers got an alert from the city and county of San Francisco on Wednesday, February 17, that read, “based on what you told us, you are now in Phase 1B. San Francisco will begin vaccinating your group on February 24.” Sent to folks who registered for a notification when the new vaccination eligibility list was announced earlier this month, it raised more questions than answers, as nowhere in the message did the city explain how a bartender, dishwasher, server, or cook might be expected to prove that they are indeed in the newly eligible group.
Leaders in San Francisco’s restaurant industry, as well as advocates for the city’s Latinx community, say that the best plan would be to take appointment seekers at their word — but so far, officials haven’t made a decision about whether they’ll require proof of employment when the city begins vaccinating restaurant workers less than a week from today.
Like every other aspect of the pandemic, the vaccination rollout has been a confusing, make-it-up-as-we-go operation. It’s well known that supplies of the shots — which are distributed by the state — are difficult to predict and plan for. They’re so inconsistent, in fact, that on Valentine’s Day, San Francisco closed its high-volume vaccination clinics down, with Mayor London Breed tweeting that the centers had to temporarily close “because of supply constraints and how fast we are distributing shots,” saying, “I’m frustrated because we’ve shown that SF can administer shots as soon as they come in.”
I’m frustrated because we’ve shown that SF can administer shots as soon as they come in.
CCSF has been running well for weeks. The reports from Moscone are overwhelmingly positive. The only thing holding us back is a lack of supply, and I’m hoping that will change soon.
City officials say that they hope to reopen its largest vaccination clinic, in the Moscone Center, by Monday, February 22. According to ABC 7, the eight-day closure has resulted in a 24,000-person backlog of appointments. Two days later, when San Francisco enters vaccination Phase 1B, Tier 1, 115,000 additional SF residents across the restaurant industry, emergency services, education, and child care can join that queue, making for a huge amount of people hoping for a limited supply of vaccines.
During the current vaccination period, only people over the age of 65 and health care workers are allowed to get the shots; proof of eligibility is required. Age-based recipients must present identification with a date of birth. Health care workers are required to demonstrate current employment, via a pay stub or “worker employee badge with photo.” But how does a restaurant worker — especially one who’s been laid off, and who is hopeful that as indoor dining slowly reopens, they can return to work — show similar proof?
The solution, Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA) executive director Laurie Thomas says, is “the honor system.” Thomas’s group isn’t responsible for setting city policy: Its role is to lobby the city on behalf of the industry, arguing for official regulations and policies that support San Francisco’s 3,500 restaurants. Thomas says that she’s advised the city that the surest way to get shots into restaurant worker arms is to “ask them if they work at a restaurant, then take them at their word.”
It’s a departure from how many other cities are handling eligibility. According to an announcement from the Berkeley city manager’s office, “those receiving the vaccine based on their employment will need to provide documentation to confirm eligibility,” such as “a recent pay stub, a letter from their employer, or an employee ID badge.” And across the country, all of New York state requires documentation from an employer for every job-based vaccine seeker. This verification eligibility expectation is one that Thomas says “will just provide more barriers for getting the vaccines” and “slow down the process.”
Keeping the process speedy is top of mind for Thomas, who says that she’s hopeful that if San Francisco’s COVID-19 numbers continue to drop, the county could enter the red tier of California’s color-coded reopening plan “by mid-March.” That’s the tier that would allow San Francisco officials to reopen indoor dining at limited capacity — a reopening that would likely spur the rehiring of many long-unemployed restaurant workers.
Speed isn’t the only reason to use the honor-based system, says Mission District native and San Francisco Small Business Commissioner William Ortiz-Cartagena. When Thomas was formulating her restaurant worker eligibility recommendations for the city, she went to Ortiz-Cartagena, asking if proof like a letter from an employer was a practical expectation for restaurant workers from the Latinx community.
As a member of the city’s Latino Task Force and part of the Mission Food Hub food bank, Ortiz-Cartagena says he knew right away that “there are cultural barriers for asking for things like a letter from the boss,” he said, and that requiring proof of employment would “hold back the community that’s been hardest hit by the virus.” After Ortiz-Cartagena and Thomas talked it through, she grew to understand his position, he says. “That’s what makes San Francisco great,” Ortiz-Cartagena says. “People will have a conversation and come around to each other’s points of view.”
Thomas and Ortiz-Cartagena both agree that everything should be done to avoid a reopening-related spike like the one the region saw in late 2020, a spike that sickened thousands and prompted the state to shutter restaurants for all services but takeout. For Thomas, there’s the business consideration, as every reopening and closure wave prompts more permanent closures. And for Ortiz-Cartagena, there’s the role the industry plays in Latinx workers’ lives. “When the restaurants all reclosed in November,” Ortiz-Cartagena says, “we saw a huge spike in people visiting the Mission Food Hub.”
As restaurants often keep their workers fed, with places closed and workers at home, they lost their incomes as well as their source of meals. “We have to get everyone vaccinated right away, so we can get restaurants open and everyone back to work,” says Ortiz-Cartagena.
Ortiz-Cartagena and Thomas agree that some people might try to abuse the proposed honor system, but they consider the risks worthwhile for the rewards. “In the end, the goal is to get everyone vaccinated, right?” Thomas asks. “What are we supposed to do? Deputize health care workers to vet everyone who comes in the door?”
A lifelong San Franciscan, Ortiz-Cartagena chooses to believe that city residents will be guided by their consciences, and that concerns about the noneligible taking up still-scarce doses are overblown. “Are San Franciscans really going to try to game the system?” he asks. “Aren’t we better than that?”
As below-freezing temperatures continue to grip North Texas, Dallas County judge Clay Jenkins has issued a local disaster declaration that prohibits the price-gouging of essentials like food.
The order, issued by Jenkins on Monday, prohibits the sale of groceries, beverages, ice, and other items for “more than the regular retail price.” The order also applies to meals served in restaurants, cafeterias and “boarding-houses,” along with restrictions on increasing the prices of non-food essentials, including medicine, hotel rooms, and toiletries. The only exception to Jenkins’s order is that a restaurant or other food vendor is allowed to increase the prices of their goods if the “increased retail price is the result of increased supplier or other costs,” according to the order.
On February 9, Gov. Kate Brown announced that risk levels for COVID-19 in Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington counties were low enough that restaurants would be permitted to serve a limited number of diners indoors this week. Indoor dining rooms closed in November, when infection rates were triple that of 2020’s summer peak; since then, bars and restaurants across Portland have worked to design winter-friendly patio seating, as well as takeout and delivery options, including cocktails. But starting Friday, February 12, dining rooms may reopen with seating limited to 25 percent of maximum capacity or 50 diners, whichever number is lower.
The sudden news was met with a variety of responses from those in the service industry; restaurant and bar owners as well as workers expressed everything from excitement about returning to work to dismay at the thought of allowing customers to return indoors. Some front-of-house workers described the difficulties in enforcing mask wearing and other safety precautions, while others shared fears and concerns about general increased exposure, especially with new, more infectious variants of the virus appearing in Oregon. And even with social distancing and mask wearing while face-to-face with diners, studies have suggested that no amount of indoor dining is safe.
Throughout the local restaurant industry, even among industry groups and restaurant owners reopening dining rooms this weekend, owners worry about welcoming diners indoors while restaurant workers remain unvaccinated. Currently, only seniors over 80 years old, incarcerated Oregonians, health care workers, and teachers can get vaccinated in Oregon; the state has yet to identify when restaurant workers would be able to receive COVID-19 vaccines. At this point, the state estimates that Oregonians over 65 will be able to receive the vaccine on March 1, and it’s still unclear whether restaurant workers will be considered “critical workers,” who will be eligible for vaccinations after those seniors, by the state’s designation.
This lack of clarity has inspired some restaurant workers to campaign on social media to be prioritized for the next round of coronavirus vaccines. The combination of delayed aid for restaurant workers, both financial and related to the vaccine, has left many chefs and restaurant workers frustrated with the state. “They literally do not give a fuck about the people that work in restaurants,” says Han Hwang, owner of Korean food cart Kim Jong Grillin’. “Without any of us getting the vaccine, what the fuck is the difference between last week and the 12th of February?”
For restaurant workers who feel uncomfortable with the Friday opening, concerns center on the fact that people see vaccinations and reopening of indoor dining as a sign that the threat of the pandemic has been alleviated. “Our current COVID case numbers are still twice as high as this past summer’s COVID cases,” said one bartender who wished to remain anonymous for fear of professional retribution. “I can have some hope in the fact that vaccines are rolling out, but just because you’re vaccinated doesn’t mean you aren’t a carrier. Those carriers are walking around feeling loose when the majority of the food and beverage industry still haven’t gotten the vaccines.”
In many cases, restaurant workers have become the main enforcers of COVID-19 safety protocols. Back in the summer of 2020, when onsite dining first reopened, Portland restaurant workers and bartenders witnessed and interacted with diners who regularly forgot or ignored state guidelines for mask-wearing and social distancing. The idea of reopening again and taking on that role has some restaurant workers dreading the premise of returning to indoor dining — especially unvaccinated. “We don’t even have a date or even an idea of when we’re going to get vaccinated,” says Adriana Garnica Alvarez, bar director for República, a new Mexican restaurant in the Pearl’s Ecotrust building. Garnica Alvarez has been working to serve takeout or in-person meals since before she started at República, and expressed frustration with how some customers behave. “We are on the frontline, we’ve had a year to use masks, and people still don’t know how to keep them up over their nose.”
With concerns coming from many workers, a large number of Portland restaurants have already announced that they would not reopen for indoor dining. Bars like Aloha’s 649, St Johns’ Leisure Public House, and Foster-Powell’s 5 & Dime will remain closed for indoor dining for the time being, as well restaurants like lauded Thai spot Eem and pizzeria Char. None of these restaurants are particularly small, and most could accommodate a decent number of guests. But even with the possibility of a snowstorm, the owners are choosing to only offer takeout and outdoor dining.
Nevertheless, some restaurants are moving toward indoor seating. Quaintrelle, a dark and normally intimate restaurant on Mississippi Avenue, will open its indoor dining room in time for Valentine’s Day (weather permitting), with around six tables in the double-decker space; the restaurant will also continue serving customers on its patio. For bar manager Camille Cavan, the choice to reopen for indoor dining is an understandable but fraught one. She doesn’t fault business owners for wanting to keep their restaurants open and their workers employed, but resents that the state is allowing diners to eat inside without developing what she calls a “foundation” for restaurants and their workers: “no package from the government, no health insurance, no hazard pay, nothing to provide ownership or management help for if [their] workers get sick,” she says. “Bottom line: if the state is going to look at us like essential workers, they need to treat us like essential workers.”
The hesitation to return to indoor dining is not universal, though, even among workers. For some of those who have been unemployed since Brown closed indoor dining in November, a return to work is desperately needed. “I haven’t been able to pay my rent since last June, I haven’t been able to go to my gym, to take the kids anywhere fun besides the park. I’m really ready to open up a little bit,” says bartender Amy Snyder. A single mother of two, Snyder works as a bartender at strip clubs Lucky Devil Lounge and Kit Kat Club, both of which plan to reopen on Friday after being completely closed since November. Snyder supplemented her unemployment with a mask-making company at home, but sales died off over the last few months. “I’m shocked … hearing from people who are hesitant. All my friends are stoked — we cannot wait,” she says about returning to bartending.
Cliff’s, a neighborhood tavern on NE Russell Street, will open for some limited indoor seating as well, says co-owner Sierra Kirk. She and her husband currently operate the bar as a skeleton crew with just two other occasional workers. Being able to run the bar with her husband, without having to put multiple employees at risk, helped aid in their decision to open the indoor dining room. “Obviously, it’s scary, it’s an unknown thing, but I feel more comfortable about it because I’m in charge of the protocols,” she says. “if something is making me uncomfortable, I can immediately address it.” Like many others, Kirk also stresses the dire need for vaccinations for workers.
Other workers were less than thrilled, but resigned to return to work. “I’ll deal with it, as I need the money. But I’ll probably be more anxious,” says a barista who wished to remain anonymous. “I’m not looking forward to all the people who will inevitably want to wander maskless around the cafe.”
Beyond the threat of COVID-19 infections, there’s also the risk to business owners and workers who may be forced to close or laid off once again. In November, COVID-19 rates spiked enough that Gov. Brown temporarily closed all restaurants, including outdoor dining, only to reverse some of that decision weeks later. Naomi Pomeroy, owner of cocktail lounge Expatriate and meal service Ripe, has been a vocal advocate for the industry since the pandemic began, even after closing her seminal restaurant Beast. “There are people who have been waiting for this moment, they’re hanging on by a goddamn thread, but it’s unfair to have this toggling back and forth,” she says. “We’ve been asked to open and close so many times.” Only time will tell if restaurants will be forced to shut down their dining rooms again.
This post originally appeared on February 6, 2020 in Amanda Kludt’s newsletter “From the Editor,” a roundup of the most vital news and stories in the food world each week. Read the archives and subscribe now.
Yesterday, while buying bread at my favorite local restaurant-turned-grocer, I asked the owner if she had any fun weekend plans, kind of a dark joke at this point since few of us really do anything. Turns out she and her whole staff are getting vaccinated today.
A few hours earlier I had emailed a different restaurateur asking if he’d be around tonight because I’ll be in his neighborhood, and he said he was taking the day off to get his vaccine. Then last night, scrolling Instagram I saw vaccine selfies from the owners of Dame and Té Company and comments about confirmed appointments for the full staff at Crown Shy and an owner of Contra.
Hundreds of thousands of restaurant workers are newly eligible for the vaccine in New York City, a concession from our governor when pushed on how he could open restaurants for indoor dining without extending protections.
Interestingly, New York City is one of the last major areas outside of California to reopen indoor dining but is one of the first (alongside Detroit) to open up vaccine access. I had predicted Nevada would be the first state to extend vaccines to hospitality workers, given Las Vegas’ reliance on the industry. But they are still waiting. Chicago is expecting March 29, D.C. later in February, Colorado sometime next month.
I’m glad to at least see some recognition that these workers are on the front lines of this pandemic in so many ways, interacting with customers in person, waiting on people without masks, working in cramped kitchens. How long it will take them all to actually get shots in their arms, given the slow rollout, and how equitable the access will be is another story.
But I was heartened to see this progress yesterday — and to hear owners are booking appointments for their full staffs, not just themselves. I hope actions like that will help us get to a place where undocumented porters are getting shots at the same rates as GMs and owners (and people who will inevitably game the system).
For more information on the vaccine rollout, check out NYC’s Vaccine Command Center. Or reach out to chef Tracy Wilk at email@example.com, who has committed to helping restaurant folk find vaccine appointments via this form.
— The latest from the health experts on whether or not we should be dining inside and / or outside.
Part one of Reply All’s four-part investigation into the 10 years of workplace toxicity that led to Bon Appetit’s implosion and rebuilding this summer is a must-listen. BA is getting the full autopsy because its downfall was so notable but what’s so devastating about the magazine’s “original sin,” (hiring a cliquish group of all-white top editors) is that it’s so common. [Gimlet]
Standing ovation for this Primal Scream package from the New York Times’ Parenting section that fully captures the chaos and the devastation this pandemic has wrought for working parents. [NYT]