The ‘invisible’ effect of the COVID wave on New York restaurants

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Commerce Inn in the West Village.
Photo: Andrew Bui

Last Wednesday, as the sky opened up outside, the Place des Fêtes dining room was buzzing. Since opening earlier this year – weeks after Mayor Eric Adams ended vaccination mandates in restaurants – the Clinton Hill wine bar has been more or less full, and that night customers have been chatting freely around glasses of Grenache and plates of mussels drowned in squid. ink, just as they might have been in 2018 or 2004. But things hadn’t fully returned to pre-pandemic levels: staff were fully clad in face masks, a precaution they didn’t bring back only recently.

“We were actually mask-free until about two weeks ago – which was a welcome change for just about all staff as most feel more comfortable without them,” says Steve Wong, partner and restaurant operations manager. “However, with this recent spike, my partners and I have made the decision to reinstate the staff mask policy at both Oxalis and Place des Fêtes.”

This spike is what has been called an “invisible” COVID wave, a wave of cases that has gone more or less unchecked and unrecognized by the public. The national case count has recently increased to 100,000 per day, with New York City still averaging more than 3,000 new daily cases, but The Guardian reports that the true totals could be 30 times higher, with many new cases going unreported due to the prevalence of home testing. (The surge may have peaked in New York, where cases have been declining since late May.)

In other words, the pandemic is far from over, but one of the reasons why the Place des Fêtes masks are so striking is that they are one of the few examples of COVID safety measures still in place in the bars and restaurants of the city. Instead, even many workers who interact with the public for eight to 10 hours at a time say they have become largely ambivalent about the continued threat of this virus.

“I can tell you this: nobody cares,” says Randy Wood, a bartender who works in both Brooklyn and Manhattan. “I just started a new job and they didn’t ask me for proof of vaccinations or anything like that.” The reason? “I think COVID fatigue has completely overtaken everyone.”

Tsepak Dolker, who manages the front of the popular Lower East Side restaurant Dhamaka, says he still wears masks at work, but the decision has been left to individuals. Other workers I spoke to said they had absolutely no desire to wear them again, regardless of the number of cases. “It would be incredibly frustrating for me,” says Ian, a bartender who works in Manhattan and who asked not to mention his last name in this story. He says that while the risk of contracting COVID is high, the risk of serious illness is low for many. “It seems like we’re kind of at a point with COVID where it’s like, It’s here, and you might get it, maybe not, but it’s probably not that bad.”

Like others, he says the arrival of Omicron – when cases rose dramatically, but not hospitalizations and deaths among those vaccinated – was a turning point in the attitudes of his colleagues. “People were pretty worried then, but since, I don’t know, February, nobody really seems to care.”

Lamar Curtis, who works as a bartender in Hell’s Kitchen, says “there’s just less urgency in general”, before conceding, “Just because people are tired doesn’t mean they think it’s done – and that’s not how it works.”

Even workers who track case trends say it’s no longer their primary concern. A Manhattan chain cook, who asked to remain anonymous, says he’s taking precautions to protect his family – a toddler son, stepfather with cancer – but can’t stay at home: “I have COVID tests. I have to do the responsible thing. I also need to work.

If the prevailing mood among hospitality workers is ambivalent, many say it’s the result of how pandemic restrictions were handled in the first place, changing and being enforced in a way that often felt arbitrary. . (A bartender tells me that when New York had a 10 p.m. curfew and indoor dining was banned, he launched a successful COVID “speakeasy” out of his workplace — and that when a police officer visited once it wasn’t to shut the place down but to tell the bartender what to do to avoid getting caught When officials came to see if the business was following rules such as contact tracing , he said “they wouldn’t even open the book”.)

Ultimately, there is now a sense of inertia, a sense that the public is “on COVID” and that workers need to move on whether they like it or not. “If you’re going to get it, you’re going to get it,” Curtis said. “All you hope is that it’s not a serious situation – and that’s it.”

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