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It’s Time for Diners to Ask the Servers: How Are You Doing?

The New York Times: In the small dining room of the acclaimed Manhattan restaurant where Brian Williams waits tables, all the windows were open on Wednesday. It was the day indoor dining returned to New York City, and the state is strongly recommending that windows and doors be kept open for as long as the temperatures cooperate, to let in fresh air.

For Mr. Williams, those open windows also let in some hope — hope that he and other servers, along with the cooks, dishwashers, managers and customers, can all share the same air this fall and winter without falling sick from the virus the city has worked so hard to contain.

Around 5 p.m., the restaurant seated a customer in its dining room for the first time since March. He looked around the empty room. Then, according to Mr. Williams, he asked to have the windows closed. Politely but firmly, the staff declined.

After I’d heard this story, I knew that restaurant workers were in for a long winter.

I spent New York’s first day of indoor dining calling servers to ask how they were doing. This was a role reversal, given how many times servers have asked me the same question. I usually say everything’s fine, whether it’s true or not. The workers I called didn’t do that. They talked about the new burdens associated with outdoor dining during the pandemic, and about how they expect the job to become more stressful as it moves indoors this fall. They talked about the pressures and fears that have almost become routine. Nobody tried to tell me that everything was fine. Everything is not fine.

Since June, when restaurants were allowed to set up outdoor seating, servers have had to enforce distancing, masking and hygiene rules while navigating tables on the sidewalks and streets. As of this week, they also have to take temperatures before seating anyone inside, and deny entry to groups who won’t provide contact-tracing information.

These and other new duties have created a profound shift in the nature of the job. In somewhat the same way flight attendants took on security roles after the 9/11 hijackings, hospitality workers have become public-health guardians, charged with keeping themselves and their customers safe from the pandemic.

With the resumption of indoor dining, which is riskier than eating outdoors, that charge has become more urgent. Servers say that reminding customers to wear masks does not come naturally in a line of work where tips, not to mention job satisfaction, hinge on saying yes as often and as cheerfully as possible.

“I’m from the South,” Mr. Williams said. “It’s in my bones — I have to be nice. I always want people to have a good time, and now I’m worried that we have to tell people, ‘No, we have to enforce rules.’ That’s always been the antithesis of what we do.”

One worker I talked to described the new health-monitor role as “being everybody’s Covid parent.” Amy Berryman, who until recently waited tables at an Upper West Side wine bar, said that servers were expected to act as “the police” for customers.

“And if we don’t, the restaurant gets fined a ton of money,” Ms. Berryman said. “And that affects your tips as the server, if you’re constantly trying to be like, ‘Please don’t stand here. Please put your masks on when you go to the bathroom.’ I became so numb to it that it’s become normalized in my mind. But it’s not normal.”

Ms. Berryman quit that job on Friday. The decision was made possible by another job opportunity, but she said her fears about indoor dining were a major factor.

She was not the only one who used the word “numb” to describe the effect of juggling personal risk, public health and customer happiness. Some servers spoke of feeling powerless to control the levels of danger and stress their jobs now entail.

Barbara Law, a barista who works at coffee shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn, was told before one of them reopened earlier this year that no more than four customers would be allowed inside at one time, the staff would get daily temperature checks and the six-feet rule would be observed. None of that turned out to be the case, they said; the baristas are jammed into a tight space and the crowd indoors sometimes swells to twice the official limit.

“In mid-July, when we started hearing about lawsuits from some restaurant owners to allow 25 percent capacity, that’s when I stopped thinking about my own health and safety,” Mx. Law said. “Because those definitely seemed to be out of my control.”

Some establishments are more careful than others. One employee of a restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who asked that his name and the restaurant’s be withheld because he isn’t authorized to speak for it, told me that he had been apprehensive this summer when he returned there to wait tables, but he has been reassured by its numerous safety protocols. In particular, he says, he appreciates that the restaurant asks customers to put on masks any time an employee is at the table.

“It’s relieved a lot of anxiety,” he said. “I think when they put the masks on, they realize that dining in general right now is a privilege.”

This is such a simple and sensible policy that there is no reason every restaurant should not adopt it.

Mr. Williams said he felt his managers had done a good job of protecting their employees, but that wasn’t the case at all restaurants. “It feels like a lot of other owners have been willfully ignorant to the dangers to their employees, and that’s been really frustrating to me,” he said.

As for the customers who don’t lean back when he has to reach in to clear a plate, or the group who laughed loudly without covering their mouths just as he got to their table, Mr. Williams said he tries to look for charitable explanations. “I want to believe that people are just not thinking, ‘Oh, this is dangerous’” for the staff, he said. “It’s dangerous for them, too, to be honest. I wonder if they’re not thinking it through. I want to believe that maybe that’s it.”

Many hospitality workers may well be reluctant to rock the boat, given how rare jobs have become. Before the pandemic, about 315,000 people worked in the restaurant industry in New York. In August, employment stood at a little more than half that level, according to a report issued Thursday by the state comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli.

Because the jobs that remain are more stressful than they used to be, some servers are actively looking for new careers.

“One of my friends is leaving his coffee shop to go work in a distillery that is giving them a better option that is safe,” Mx. Law said. “I’m trying to go get a coding degree in order to get a job where I can work remotely. I’m trying to get out because it’s very clear that this isn’t ending any time soon.”

The longer the pandemic goes on, the more likely it seems that skilled and talented servers will flee the business. What is called the restaurant industry is, in fact, deeply reliant on things that can’t be produced on an assembly line. Outside the chains, the food and drinks are made by hand and sold by hand, too. The people in charge of sales, the servers, are experts at turning this into something better than a transaction.

Each restaurant has its own story, each night its own drama, each meal its own rhythm. Gifted servers, of whom New York used to have an abundance, narrate and guide all of this, and they do it while remembering who gets the fish and who has a seafood allergy. They are famous for changing jobs frequently, but large numbers of servers’ leaving the field permanently would suck a lot of the energy out of the city’s restaurant scene, or what’s left of it.

One of my rules as a critic is to write about the performance, not the audience. I’m going to break that rule now. Too many New Yorkers are acting as if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. The workers I talked to say that we are getting more careless by the week.

If you go to a restaurant, wear a mask unless you’re putting food or drink into your mouth. Make sure it’s on when a restaurant employee walks toward your table. Keep your distance. Pour your own wine. Tip as if your servers deserved hazard pay, because they do. And if you think you’ll get chilly sitting by an open window, bring a sweater.

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Originally posted on The New York Times. All rights reserved.

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