This column has been updated to reflect developments since it was first published.
This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took a signal step to help Americans return to life before lockdown, allowing anyone who is fully vaccinated to go without a mask indoors. For the restaurant industry, the announcement offers both hope and a challenge. Nothing makes us — a longtime restaurant critic and three chef-owners — happier than knowing restaurants are increasingly able to welcome back guests, and welcome back workers. It’s a time of rebirth and renewal.
But we must still stay safe to stay open.
That’s why we’ve come together to endorse “Safety First: Protecting Workers and Diners as Restaurants Reopen," a clear set of rules and practices compiled by and for the restaurant community in concert with national and regional health authorities. Published online last month by the Aspen Institute’s Food and Society Program, it’s a vital resource for keeping everyone safe while many — but by no means all — Americans are getting vaccinated.
Our newer normal means first that we all must be vaccinated, particularly all restaurant workers. José so much believes in the shot that he is giving $50 gift cards to people who are newly vaccinated. But restaurant workers can’t be in the business of policing their patrons — and because the CDC has not provided a way to verify whether someone has been vaccinated, we must continue to protect our guests and ourselves. We stand by José's core principle: There are no first- or second-class citizens. Until we have a nationally recognized proof of vaccination (or get to herd immunity), everybody inside a restaurant has to wear a mask.
That has never been an easy ask. Our partners at One Fair Wage, which advocates for restaurant workers, helped write a script for whoever seats a party to use to graciously but firmly outline the mask policy. “I’ve visited virtually every table at our Topolobampo — mask on,” Rick says. “ ‘It’s okay, we’re vaccinated,’ some of our guests without masks tell me. 'I am, too,’ I say. ‘We hope everyone here is. But we don’t know. So we’re asking you to wear masks as a measure of respect for everyone in here tonight.’ ”
The relaxed rules make it even more important to focus on another key to indoor safety: ventilation. This is particularly hard for small-business owners to improve — but it’s possible. New or upgraded HVAC systems may be beyond a restaurant’s capability; upgrading air filters and keeping them clean are not. Neither are opening windows and doors and switching the direction of ceiling fans to suck air up and away from diners. Portable air-purifying units are an effective and relatively small investment. Strategically placed plexiglass barriers can divert air flow.
These and other strategies are outlined in the “Safety First” guidelines, along with rules for restaurants and a code of conduct for diners. Next month, the Aspen program plans to follow up with two free online training initiatives — one for restaurant workers and one for health officials.
Make no mistake: If we don’t follow rules as restaurants reopen, they might well need to close again, this time for good. In New York City, Russell is worried that behavior will start to get “nutty,” particularly as bars reopen, and that the burden of dealing with noncompliant customers will fall on his staff. His beverage director recently announced she’d be quitting her side gig at a less careful restaurant. “Why should I put myself at risk when those owners haven’t protected me, and the city is taking the guardrails off?” she told him.
The night Corby arrived to live in Washington, he and his spouse were taken to Buck’s Fishing & Camping, a restaurant that immediately became a go-to standby. The first time they returned to sit inside, in mid-April, the server who used to know their usual order by heart caught sight of them — and let out a yelp of greeting from across the room.
The delight in his eyes, the staff’s pleasure in keeping a carefully built machine thrumming — all of it was completely discernible with masks and distancing. All of it felt just as warm and professional as ever. We can’t lose that feeling.
This is the most hopeful moment for restaurants since March 2020. All of us who love restaurants and the communities they sustain need to come together to make this a spring of true rebirth. As we throw open our doors, we need to show guests a wide, welcoming smile — with our eyes.