When Zuma Miami resumed dine-in service on May 27, the restaurant staff was still learning new safety protocols. Servers are now required to wear gloves and masks while maneuvering between tables spaced six feet apart, and the wine list had been uploaded to a digital system to eliminate possible contamination from paper menus shared among guests.
“Doing wine service in masks and gloves feels like an exam situation where the [instructors] are giving you an unrealistic hurdle to work through,” says Jennifer Schmitt, Zuma’s head sommelier. “Handling a wet bottle in an ice bucket with rubber gloves is like trying to hold onto a baby in the bathtub. You need to pay attention.”
During the first weeks under the new protocols, one Zuma server, unaccustomed to wearing gloves, accidentally dropped a bottle of Hirsch West Ridge Pinot Noir, which sells for $225. It was a blow to the restaurant’s already-precarious profit margins.
“The last thing we need financially right now is breakage,” says Schmitt.
Welcome to restaurant service during the novel coronavirus pandemic. As governors encourage businesses to reopen, restaurateurs and staff are trying to find a common ground between financial solvency and personal safety.
Mandates for servers and diners to wear masks varies by city and state. To add to the confusion, masks have become politicized for some Americans, despite Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advisories that cloth face coverings help prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Hospitality workers are caught in the crosshairs of a health crisis masquerading as partisanship. The lack of consistent guidelines between national and local authorities heightens concerns and complicates operations for those in kitchens and dining rooms.
“The restaurant business is often so concerned about the guest we don’t take our level of comfort into account,” says Schmitt. “I was finding myself getting angry with people…who were getting impatient with the lock down and pushing for reopening. They were safe behind their computers, or phones, at home. They were not feeling the stress of walking up to a table of people…who are not wearing a mask.”
At Urban Wren Winery in Greenville, South Carolina, some customers conflate wearing a mask with an infringement on their constitutional rights.
“Here in the South, constitutional rights and unrestricted freedom hold great value in the community,” says Eric Cooperman, Urban Wren’s wine director. “Politicians are gun-shy to impose clear, definitive regulations.”
Cooperman says he and his team wear masks because “it is the right thing to do.”
Recently, however, Greenville residents boycotted a local restaurant that required patrons to wear masks when not seated. The threat of being blacklisted by patrons worries many restaurant workers and owners.
Standardized verbiage and staff training are being used at Queen’s Park, a cocktail bar in Birmingham, Alabama. This includes role-playing exercises aimed to help employees diffuse any potential conflicts with guests. Owner Laura Newman created laminated signs with “House Rules” like, “Please don’t stand or order at the bar, your server will assist you.” They are displayed at each table so staff “can point to the sign and say that these are the posted rules,” she says.
Still, some staff feel underprepared and poorly compensated for these additional strains. Many front-of-house employees are unsalaried and are primarily paid through tips in addition to minimum wage, which can be as low as $2.13 an hour for restaurant workers. Few have health insurance.
“Even the people who are supposed to know what’s going on don’t have the proper information.”—Brandon Ford, corporate beverage director, Hyde Park Group
This week, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio opted not to reinstate indoor dining in the city, noting the spike in coronavirus infections in other regions.
“It shows that, sadly, we are still in the middle of the storm,” says Bruno Almeida, wine director and sommelier at Tocqueville in New York City. “Until then, it’s time to revamp and rethink the whole industry from scratch. I would rather come back to business stronger for the long run, than risk the future of the industry, workers, professionals and their families.”
Brandon Ford, the corporate beverage director of Hyde Park Group, oversees drinks programs at restaurants in five states: Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Florida. Juggling each locale’s restrictions has become a full-time job.
“The immediacy and lack of transparency regarding governmental requirements has been a huge issue,” he says.
For example, crucial restrictions on indoor bar patrons implemented by one city health department were reversed the following day by the state governor.
“Even the people who are supposed to know what’s going on don’t have the proper information,” says Ford.
Michael Neff, owner and bar director of The Cottonmouth Club in Houston, noted the lack of communication between hospitality professionals and government officials as Texas reopened bars and restaurants during its second phase on May 22.
“The speed in which we were compelled to reopen did not allow for enough dialogue with the bar community to determine what is actually safe,” he says. “There was no dialogue at all.”
Neff experienced “every level of fear and anxiety,” while customers complained about having to wear masks. As news spread of workers falling ill across the city, Neff closed The Cottonmouth Club on June 18. A week later, on June 26, Texas Governor Greg Abbott shuttered bars again, prompted by a renewed rise in the state’s confirmed coronavirus infections.
The regulatory whiplash and inconsistent guidelines have made for unsafe working conditions, Neff says. “Every place that tried to be responsible was directly undermined by every other place who chose, on purpose, to follow no guidelines whatsoever.”
One spirits director in Philadelphia, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak openly, takes issue with U.S. restaurants reopening at all.
“The endangerment of hundreds of thousands of restaurant and bar workers across the country so that people can be served their food during a worldwide pandemic, is a level of privilege that I am having trouble processing,” he says. “We are looking at inevitably killing thousands of people and continuing the spread of Covid-19 so that people can be served and cleaned up after by laborers society feels are disposable.”