Yes, You Can Dine At Reopened Restaurants. But Is It Ethical?

On her second shift after Leunig’s Bistro and Café reopened in Burlington, Vermont, server Lyndsey Hobart asked a diner to wear a mask as he walked through the restaurant toward the restrooms. Leunig’s, known locally for excellent steak frites and an early bird special that’s popular with the theater set, had just reopened for indoor dining. 

Hanging between Toulouse Lautrec posters and Parisian tchotchkes were signs asking patrons to wear masks when not seated. The customer, who was eating with his wife and small child, walked away, saying: “This is fucking bullshit.”

Hobart, on some level, agreed. She doesn’t love being back at work. After the restaurant closed due to the pandemic in March, she’d been paying her rent and buying groceries with income from unemployment insurance. She was extra careful about social distancing — she needed to stay safe so she could offer support to her parents, both of whom are immunocompromised. 

When restaurants across the state reopened for dining in June, Hobart and other employees were faced with a stark choice: Lose your unemployment income or report to work in a pandemic. Worried that it would be impossible to find another job, Hobart, who has worked as a server at Leunig’s for seven years, came back in. She told her parents that she’d have to stop her visits with them.

I feel like it’s gone from hospitality to servitude. It’s like I’m looking at people eating on the top deck of the Titanic. Stephanie Cohen, restaurant server

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans are yearning for the experience of eating in restaurants once again. Some have determined it’s worth it. But like so many decisions now, dining out has impacts that go well beyond individual risk-tolerance, because it also endangers servers and other staff.

For Stephanie Cohen, who worked at a server at Leunig’s for six years, the restaurant question is, at its core, a problem of consent. Choosing between financial ruin and a risky work environment is no choice at all, Cohen said. There’s no way to know whether your server is reporting to work willingly, or out of fear of destitution. Facing a medical condition herself, she decided to stay home; she’ll apply for an exception from the unemployment cutoff, but knows the outcome is uncertain.

Masked servers put themselves at risk while dealing with customers who remove their masks to eat. (Photo: Michele Ursi via Getty Images)
Masked servers put themselves at risk while dealing with customers who remove their masks to eat. (Photo: Michele Ursi via Getty Images)

Now, she said, she wonders how diners can countenance their meals. She feels uncomfortable when she sees restaurants whose masked servers are tending to packed tables of maskless, laughing diners. Most of the precautions at restaurants protect the served, not the servers, she observed.

“I feel like it’s gone from hospitality to servitude,” she said. “It’s like I’m looking at people eating on the top deck of the Titanic.” 

How risky is restaurant work, actually?

It’s not great. “We’ve learned that masks can help prevent transmission of the virus from the person wearing the mask, but when you’re eating you can’t wear a mask,” said Robin Patel, president of the American Society for Microbiology.

By analyzing credit card location data, JPMorgan Chase has found that in-person spending at restaurants is strongly predictive of infection spikes.

While picking up viruses from surfaces is still a potential issue, Patel said person-to-person transmission has emerged as the most serious risk. While many restaurants initially opened in outdoor settings, others are now opening indoors ― and indoor spaces tend to recirculate the same air, viruses and all. No matter how widely spaced the tables, that means servers are in danger. (Diners too, but hey — they’re paying to be there.)

And we no longer need to rely on virus modeling alone. Since restaurants began reopening in some places a month ago, public health officials have watched them emerge as coronavirus hotspots. 

Restaurant workers across the country have tested positive for COVID-19, from Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C. to Texas. A single bar and grill in Lansing, Michigan, is the source of at least 152 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. 

By analyzing credit card location data, JPMorgan Chase found that in-person spending at restaurants is strongly predictive of infection spikes.

And in some places, including New Jersey and much of California, governors have reversed the trend toward reopening indoor dining altogether.

So we asked an ethicist if dining out is ethical right now.

Call a virologist for a headache-inducing description of how germs can waft through the air; if you’re wondering about the right way to behave, dial an ethicist.  

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We set national standards for workplace safety — even without the pandemic — so to leave this question to some individual who wants ... a pizza seems like madness to me. Randy Cohen, ethicist

“This is a difficult question,” said ethicist Randy Cohen. “People who go out to eat potentially put the servers at risk, but people have to live and people need jobs.” Cohen, the author of “Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything,” acknowledged that well-intentioned people may wish to support restaurateurs. And he refused to scapegoat the people he’s seen crowded into dining rooms and bars.

“What this shows is the utter futility of individual solutions,” he said. “We set national standards for workplace safety — even without the pandemic — so to leave this question to some individual who wants to go out and get a pizza seems like madness to me.”

Given that, Cohen said the first ethical duty, in this case, is a civic one. “Are you writing to your congressperson demanding decent conditions for workers? You have to do that.”

If buying food and paying for health insurance in the United States didn’t depend on clocking in during a public health crisis, workers might not feel pressured to undergo dangerous conditions. But working to change the system doesn’t answer the question of where to eat dinner tonight.

While Cohen acknowledged the potential value of supporting local businesses in a cratering economy, he compared indoor pandemic dining to buying T-shirts made in a sweatshop; if you do it, you’re accepting that your own pleasure could cause harm to others. He also dismissed the possibility of buying your way out of guilt by leaving an extra big tip. “It does not get you off the hook,” he said. “It’s not a fee you pay to engage in antisocial behavior.” 

For Cohen, the image of diners tipping big to offset endangering servers evoked scenes in Paris just before guillotines came rumbling out: “It’s like some 18th-century person with a nice powdered wig, getting into a coach and tossing some money.”

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