Don't blame your friends for eating out during the pandemic, blame the miserable system that drove the restaurant reopenings

  • As cities start to reopen in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, restaurants are beginning to offer outside dining options.
  • Before you shame your friends for participating, be sure to look at how capitalism plays a role.
  • Elisabeth Sherman is a food and culture writer based in Jersey City.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

In the first couple months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Newark Ave in Jersey City, where I live, fell eerily quiet. This former hub of activity and socializing felt like a ghost town of empty bars and Italian restaurants gathering dust as New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy decreed that local businesses remain shuttered in the interest of public safety. 

Then in mid-May, storefronts began cautiously re-opening, selling to-go cocktails, iced coffees, and takeaway meals from their windows. The streets began to resemble a never-ending adult block party, replete with worrying violations of health guidelines for New Jersey, which implored people to social distance and wear masks. Groups of friends in tight knit circles dotted the green-painted pavement, their canned and bottled cocktails in hand, masks strapped around their chins. 

Since the beginning of July, when restaurants were allowed to open at a limited capacity with outdoor dining only, the situation has only worsened. Newark Ave is once again filled with the tipsy laughter of day-drinkers posted up at tables outside sports bars.

The only people wearing masks in these crowds are the waiters. Maybe they had to return to work because the boss threatened to fire them if they didn't return, or their savings had run out, or they have an elderly family member to look after, or overdue student loan payments to think about.

It's an undeniable fact that going out to eat pays servers much needed wages, but restaurant workers face a terrible choice right now: They have to either keep themselves and their families afloat by going back to work and potentially expose themselves to COVID-19, or remain healthy but face financial ruin. It's a moral failing of society that we've left them no other options.

Individual diners, as selfish as they might be, aren't entirely responsible for the push to reopen still-vulnerable states. We need to indict our entire capitalist government and economy for rushing to welcome shoppers and diners back to restaurants and businesses — thus creating entirely avoidable spikes in COVID-19 cases across the country.

High risk, low reward

Going out to eat right now puts essential workers at unnecessary risk, bottom line. So far, more than 160,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, but even one would be too many. Why do anything that might put the health of someone, even if that person is a stranger, in jeopardy? 

Boredom isn't a good enough reason to return to your local watering hole, where, let's be honest, you can't wear a mask and eat your buffalo wings at the same time. That $13 cocktail just isn't worth falling yourself or exposing the people at neighboring tables — not to mention the server. According to the Restaurants Opportunities Center, nine out of 10 restaurant workers don't have health insurance or paid sick leave, which means they are far less likely to receive treatment or stay home if they feel sick. 

As Kat Kinsman, senior editor at Food & Wine, wrote of her decision to not eat at restaurants for the time being:

"The majority of restaurant workers don't have benefits through their employer — especially healthcare. Many haven't gotten any sort of government-based unemployment money because of documentation status…Many restaurant workers just don't have an option to not return to work because they're the least able to weather the loss of a paycheck…I'm too afraid, not of them but for them."

But the issue is more complicated than (arguably dumb) individual choice: The American obsession with stabilizing the economy instead of safeguarding human life is at fault as well. On Twitter, stand up comedian Kate Willet summed up the issue perfectly: "We are in this mess because capitalism is prioritized over human life on every level."

States that have been most eager to jump start their economies have faced dire consequences, especially in the South.

In May, Alabama allowed businesses and restaurants to reopen, and by late June reported a surge of 29,000 confirmed cases of the virus, a disproportionate number of which affected the state's African-American community.

After the Georgia saw its own spike in cases around the same time, Harry Heiman, a professor of public health at Georgia State University, told Fox News Atlanta that, "We are only having such a sustained plateau at such a high level and now seeing cases going back up because we were in such a hurry to open back up."

These deaths could have easily been prevented if state leadership listened to doctors and researchers who issued unheeded warnings as early as May. Thomas Frieden, a former director of the CDC in the Obama administration, told the New York Times that, "We're reopening based on politics, ideology and public pressure. And I think it's going to end badly."

He was right: A study conducted by the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University found that 54% of infections nationwide reported on May 3 "could have been avoided," had the country implemented social distancing just one to two weeks earlier. 

Politicians with money on the mind ignored science, though, and as the weather warmed, states pushed to take advantage in the inevitable urge to get outdoors. By early June, the data already showed that the U.S. would see a summer-time surge in cases. By July, cases were still rapidly rising, though the death toll had thankfully slowed.

If states are so desperate to make sure their economies and workforce survives this pandemic, they should provide restaurants with government bailouts so they can afford to stay closed while paying their workers to stay home. Instead, our ineffectual government has provided very little relief to small businesses beyond PPP loans, which are routinely denied to minority-owned businesses.

Meanwhile, essential workers are still struggling to survive even after receiving one $1,200 stimulus check — some of whom may not have received a check at all depending on their immigration status. Recently, Congress failed to extend the extra $600 per week federal unemployment benefit it had been paying out to unemployed Americans. Servers, cooks, and dishwashers have no choice but to work, even if it means exposing themselves and potentially their families to COVID-19.

Willet goes on to point out that as soon as bars open, people might assume that society is safe again. If their city government says it's okay to venture out, most people will follow that advice.  Local governments in places like Seattle and New York City have released planned "phases" for reopening, and New York City in particular rushed into phase four even though the number of cases has only been holding steady since mid-June.

Blame game

The federal government has issued no nationwide standardized safety guidelines or a mask mandate for the country to follow. It took the president five months to take a definitive stance on whether or not to wear a mask himself. So it's no surprise that most people are unsure how to stay safe; they've been left to their own devices to figure it out for themselves. 

So, sure, go ahead and shame your friends who are eating at restaurants right now. It might even do some good. But you'd better hold the capitalist economy to account too, which prizes its survival over the health and safety of the people who sustain it. 

Demand more stimulus checks, widespread and affordable testing, and equitable bail outs for small businesses. Acknowledging that our economic system is corrupt doesn't absolve you from personal responsibility, though. If you do decide to skip dinner and drinks, blame capitalism as much as careless friends for spiking COVID-19 cases. Otherwise, to again paraphrase Kate Willet, you're letting the government get away with murder.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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