Friday, August 14, 2020
Aug. 14, 2020

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What’s it like to work in a reopened restaurant amid COVID-19 risks? Seattle servers speak out

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SEATTLE — Amid a global pandemic, you can still go out to eat in a restaurant in Seattle, should you choose to — under Washington’s current Phase 2 rules, dining in restaurants is permitted at 50% of normal capacity. But as knowledge about COVID-19 grows, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has designated indoor dining as “even more risk” for transmission than outdoor restaurant seating (with takeout and delivery lowest of all).

“The more an individual interacts with others, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread,” say the CDC guidelines for restaurants and bars. Six top U.S. public health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, recently told The Washington Post that dining in during the COVID-19 era is a risk that they refuse to take. Meanwhile, numbers of cases in Washington state and across the country continue to rise, with spikes occurring in cities and states that have more fully reopened restaurants and other businesses already.

What’s it like to be the individual interacting the most with others right now at a restaurant? Here are three reports from those working in the industry in Seattle now — and one who counts himself lucky to be out of it. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity, and the names of some workers have been changed at their request for fear of retribution by their employers.

“It’s not a job we’re really prepared for” — Jake, bartender

Jake has worked at a casual restaurant with a bar that’s a popular hangout for almost 10 years, and has worked in the industry off and on for more than 20 years. His place of employ reopened for dining in on June 14.

“I went back to work on May 7. Initially, we were takeout only, with only two people working — cook and front of house — and no seating. Now we have limited seating and a larger staff. I felt pretty confident in our takeout setup — it was alien enough that folks immediately knew the rules were different. Now, it’s stressful trying to get people to stay at their tables and not mill around, or even invite themselves to sit at other tables!

“In a way, I understand. Your first impulse is to walk up to the bar. And since there are few solid rules, it’s hard to enforce. One of the most helpful things was when the governor made masks mandatory at businesses. Just that requirement altered the psychology of patrons. I’d thought of suggesting this as a requirement, but thought it wouldn’t hold much water since people will inevitably have to remove them to eat and drink.

“Never in my life have I longed for strong leadership from authority. But right now, that is what we need. Unless there are logical and strong guidelines for containing the pandemic, the workers are going to have to make them up, and we’ll do our damnedest, but it’s not a job we’re really prepared for. Nor is it a job we’ve sought.

“And I strongly suggest businesses have meetings and listen to their workers, now more than ever. We want to protect ourselves and especially others.

“All my fellow workers are uneasy about working right now, and nearly all don’t think restaurants and bars should be open — although we do feel a sense of loyalty and an ingrained need to work for our money. It’s almost perverse when you think about it. Most people who have more now are doing less.”

“Not how I was expecting summer to go!” — Tessa Cohen, server

Tessa has been a server for five years and was a barista for one year prior to that. She’s been waiting tables at Willmott’s Ghost, a Renee Erickson restaurant in the Amazon Spheres, for a year. Willmott’s is currently open for patio seating only, in addition to takeout.

“It’s definitely a whole new experience. It was a whole new learning curve coming back. It’s just very different — like I want to spend less time with my tables because I don’t want to be that face-to-face, but I want to still give them the experience that they’re coming out to have. The sanitation is different — it’s a lot more intense, there’s a lot more hand-washing, we do a temperature check when we go in every day.

“It’s great to be back — I’m very happy, I’m very fortunate. And I feel very safe with my team. They do put my safety as priority over everything else, and anything I am not comfortable doing I don’t have to do, which is awesome.

“I’m working 30 to 35 hours [a week]. I actually have not received unemployment. I was approved immediately, like the first week of March, and every time I filed, it just said ‘Disqualified.’ I went through an appeals process and I won the appeal, so hopefully I will eventually get that back pay. It’s crazy.

“[My health] definitely is a worry of mine. I do feel like it is on the back burner, because I wasn’t paid for about three and a half months, so I have to put my financial worth above my health, unfortunately. But everyone does wear their masks, and all the guests sanitize when they come in. We’re just taking the sanitation and the health aspect of it really seriously, which I’m very grateful for. When we first started serving tables, I just tried to stand as far back from the table as I could, so that they can still hear me with the mask. It does create a weird dynamic — my face is covered and theirs isn’t.

“I’ve gone out [to restaurants] a couple times. I personally don’t really feel comfortable dining out. I just feel safer being at home — especially going to work, it just feels like the less exposure I have, the better.

“We’re based inside the Amazon Spheres, so a lot of our customers were Amazon employees, and now employees are staying home till 2021, which is awesome. But I’m worried for the future of my restaurant and my job, just with the lack of business. Summer is our busy season, and I’m making about what I was making in our slow months, in winter, and I’m working more hours. I’m managing financially, but it’s a lot harder. A lot of belt-tightening. Not how I was expecting summer to go!

“I’m interested to see how the restaurant industry as a whole changes because of this and what new things come out of it — what’s created. And I think that it’s a really resilient industry. I’m hopeful, but cautious.”

“It feels like we handled it really wrong, in a big-picture way” — Sam, server

Sam has worked in Seattle restaurants for the better part of the last decade. They’ve been in their current role as a server at an upscale, sit-down cafe-and-restaurant for a year and a half. The restaurant/cafe is currently open for dining in and outdoor seating.

“It’s very slow. There’s a lot of time where there’s maybe one or two tables [occupied], or no tables. They’ve cleared a lot of the tables out, so that the tables are 6 feet apart. It just feels weird. I feel like all of the science tells us that we shouldn’t be doing it. But everyone’s kind of forced to, otherwise they lose all their [unemployment] benefits altogether and then they just have no income. So it’s really stressful. And the staff are pretty — they just get put in a really, really difficult position.

“[The pay now] — it’s abysmal. On top of it being much slower, the capacity is just lower. Even if it picks up, I think with the diminished capacity, it just isn’t sustainable for servers to pay their rent.

“We have to wear masks. A lot of us wear gloves. We’re trying to keep a practice of washing our hands as much as we can. We’re doing everything in our power to minimize the risk of spreading [COVID-19] inside the restaurant. But I just don’t know how much we actually can control. I’m less concerned about myself [healthwise] than I am about some of the patrons who’re older, or anyone that I could come in contact with. I’ve been social distancing — I haven’t seen my parents. But if one person comes in one day and has it — being open for indoor seating just feels like even if the young serving staff aren’t at superrisk themselves to obtain it or have symptoms, we’re still risking another bloom of people just from going in the restaurant. It feels like putting short-term pleasure ahead of long-term health.

“I’ve never been much of a cook, but during the pandemic I’ve been cooking more and learning to really enjoy it. I realized that a lot of things I would go out and order are things I can make at home pretty easily. And that just has contributed to this feeling like: I miss restaurants, but I can wait. I feel like the priorities are kind of skewed. Get takeout. That way you’re still supporting them, and you’re not risking the staff or yourself.

“I haven’t gone out [to eat since the pandemic began]. It just seems really unfulfilling. You’re off in a corner — it’s not the same experience as dining out normally would be. When I think of [the restaurant I work at] normally, it’s full of people. In order to even attempt to have the safest environment in this situation, it kind of just feels like you’re removing a big chunk of why people want to eat out.

“The staff right now are all very nervous and tense, partially because I feel like many of us are working against our will at this point, because our other option is to just forfeit having any income at all. I think that we’re also picking up on management being very stressed out and nervous. And so I can see all of that, plus the absence of our normal volume of customers — it feels like a really bizarre atmosphere. It’s palpable.

“This Phase 2 — to me, it feels very of our alternative-facts era. Because it feels like it’s just ignoring science and hoping that we can just will things back to normal. And I think that the numbers [of COVID-19 cases] of every place that has reopened have proven that isn’t going to work. So I’m kind of just hoping that we have to close again, because that was the only way we got the numbers to even start to drop.

“We’re only reopened in the capacity we are right now because of stipulations from small business loans. I wish that instead of the organization that went into that, there had been more pressure from restaurateurs and the community to freeze rent on those spaces. A lot of them are losing so much money, because they’re not having income and they have to pay their rent. It feels like we handled it really wrong, in a big-picture way.

“It feels very much like prioritizing capitalism over just actually ending the pandemic. And it’s sad to me that there are going to be so many unnecessary deaths because of this oversight — the narrative of just wanting to reopen the economy, long before it actually was healthy to do so.

“It really, I think, is showing how expendable working-class people are. Me and a lot of my co-workers feel really expendable … It just feels like it’s putting profit over people.”

“I’m not interested in endangering myself and others” — Rodney Bradshaw, server

Rodney has been in the restaurant industry for 35 years, most recently as a server at Trattoria Cuoco , an upscale Tom Douglas pasta place that shut down at the beginning of the COVID crisis and has since permanently closed.

“I fortunately have the resources to sit it out for a bit while this situation sorts itself out a bit better. I’m thinking hard on whether I want to be in the service sector at all. My only place of work totally folded. It would have been nice to have had a heads-up on that understandable situation before I read it in the paper.

“I’m going forward cautiously — I’m not interested in endangering myself and others for no valid reasons. I count myself very lucky to stay out of this current struggle.

“There is always a certain sense of power and entitlement that is intrinsic with restaurant customer experience. I myself have been fairly good at letting customers know their limits with regards to what the BOH [kitchen] staff can do for them. For myself, though, I can be too accommodating with customers sometimes, and with the possibility of a very real physical threat that is unseen, the chance that the precautions taken would not be enough seems like too much of a liability. Customers constantly want the rules bent to their satisfaction — I can relate, but I do not want to have to be put in that situation. Tough decisions have been made by owners, managers and staff, and I hope everyone going out appreciates that and respects it.

“Having said that, I do know folks who are very loyal and worried about their favorite restaurants and servers, and really want to see everyone surviving this financially. I don’t think everyone going out to places is as purposefully selfish as they seem. However, the insistence on a return to ‘normalcy’ needs to be checked. There is a new normal that we all need to figure out and abide by. Get it to go!

“I do feel bad for all my supersocial friends. They are doing a pretty good job of curbing their tendencies, and I appreciate their concern for the industry and its workers. But for myself, I’m really enjoying my newest career as a hermit! I just wish it paid better.”

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