Is Indoor Dining Too Dangerous?

A server re-opens a restaurant with social distancing measures (A server reopens a restaurant after Covid-19)

Just days after California reinstated outdoor dining, New York City announced plans to resume indoor dining on February 14th, at 25 percent capacity. They join Chicago, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, which have recently reopened indoor service at a quarter capacity. The lessening restrictions come alongside reports of declining Covid-19 infections across the country. The United States reported a 25% drop in new cases last week, with almost every state reporting declines in new infections as well.

It is exciting news, but many operators in New York City say it’s not enough. Their dining rooms have been closed since December, leaving them to survive on take-away sales or limited outdoor dining capacities (which lead The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells to dub this “the winter of the yurt”). But with temperatures hovering near freezing in the city, even the coziest of dining tents are losing their appeal, and restaurants are struggling.

Read more: How Philadelphia is Pivoting During Covid-19

Restaurant advocates, like NYC Hospitality Alliance executive director Andrew Rigie, want to see dining rooms opened immediately at 50% capacity. Outside of the five boroughs, New York restaurants can operate at half capacity, despite higher infection rates than the city has. But for the administration officials, the density of the metropolitan area makes it a greater transmission risk. It’s worth noting that the State’s own research traced just 1.4 percent of Covid-19 cases to restaurants and bars.

At the press conference, Governor Cuomo said the restaurant capacities will change with infection rates, but for the moment, he seems resolute, “Twenty-five percent is better than zero, and that’s where we are now.”

While the vast majority of states are allowed to operate with limited dine-in capacities, New York City and California have faced some of the strictest pandemic regulations. Their loosening of restrictions offers a sliver of hope for industry operators, that maybe “normal” isn’t so far away after all.

Yet, just because restaurants can open their indoor dining, doesn’t mean they should.

When restaurants were re-opening in July, New York-based food writer Kat Kinsman wrote that despite the “thousand precautions and protocols” they were operating with, she couldn’t go back. “I'm too afraid, not of them,” she said, referring to restaurant employees, who she trusts to uphold strict safety protocols, “but for them, and I don't know what the right thing is to keep them safe.”

Read More: Texas Operators Dish on Marketing During Covid-19

Her argument centers around a confusing moral quagmire. Restaurants need customers to survive, but guests put hospitality workers – many of whom work without benefits or healthcare for just $2.13 an hour – at risk of infection.

Another prominent New York writer, Helen Rosner, agrees. On a Twitter thread, she wrote, “Got an email from a friend recently saying “The real story here is that the customers who do indoor dining are assholes” and you know, he’s completely right.” At the time of writing, the thread has over 32,000 likes and almost 3,000 retweets. For those interested in reading more, it’s available on her Twitter and Instagram highlights.

Rosner’s thread offers an interesting cross section of opinions. Some ‘civilians’ – people who don’t work in restaurants – are keen to return and feel it’s safe to do so. But others, many of whom work as servers of bartenders, feel differently. Despite being eager for income, they’re nervous about returning to work, having to act as the ‘public health police’, and dealing with the increased levels of customer entitlement. This article by Khushbu Shah delves deeper into the systemic toxicity of entitlement, and is worth a read.

Read More: Restaurant Industry Looks to Rebuild in 2021

While restaurant owners in New York City feel that 25% capacity is far too little and are pushing to expand their dining room service to 50%, Rosner serves as the voice of the conscious consumers and advocates for takeout, gift cards and tips. From a customer’s point of view, she says, “There’s also NO argument in favor of dining indoors that doesn’t ultimately boil down to “I just really want to.”

Marti Cummings, candidate for NYC Council District 7, is putting pressure on the Governor to make the Covid-19 vaccine readily available for service industry workers who will be serving indoors. The Governor’s office has yet to respond to Cummings’ statement, or to Restaurant & Bar. Hospitality workers in New York are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

Ultimately, operating during Covid-19 is a difficult path for both operators and customers to walk. When it comes to service in doors, the line between financial necessity and ethical responsibility becomes blurred. There is no clear solution here, and operators must work within the confines that they and their teams feel most comfortable.

How do you feel about indoor dining for your venue? Let us know on our Facebook or Instagram.

On February 1, 2021 New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo said the call to prioritize service industry workers for the Covid-19 vaccine was "a cheap, insincere discussion" because there is already a lack of available dosages.

On February 2, 2021 New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo reversed his earlier decision, and has now said restaurant workers can be eligible for the vaccine, if there are enough doses. He is leaving the decision up to local governments, pending availability.

On February 8, 2021 Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that New York City restaurants can open their dining rooms on Friday, two days earlier than previously scheduled. This will allow restaurants to benefit from the entire holiday weekend traffic.