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

West Village Commerce Inn.
Photo: André Bui

Last Wednesday, as the sky opened up outside, the dining room inside the Place des Fêtes was humming. Since opening earlier this year — a few weeks after Mayor Eric Adams ended restaurant vaccine mandates — the Clinton Hill wine bar has been more or less full, and on this night, patrons chatted freely over glasses of Grenache and plates. of mussels drowned in squid. paint, just as they might have done in 2018 or 2004. But things haven’t completely returned to pre-pandemic levels: the team was fully clothed in face masks, a precaution they’ve only recently brought back.

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

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

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

“I can tell you one thing: nobody cares,” says Randy Wood, a bartender who works in 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 the fatigue from COVID completely overcame everyone.”

Tsepak Dolker, who runs the front of the Lower East Side’s popular Dhamaka restaurant, says he’s still wearing face masks at work, but the decision has been left to individuals. Other workers I spoke to said they have absolutely no desire to use them again – regardless of case count. “That would be incredibly frustrating for me,” says Ian, a bartender who works in Manhattan and who asked to leave his last name out of this story. He says that even though the risk of contracting COVID is high, the risk of serious illness is low for many. “It feels like we’re at a point with COVID where it’s like, It’s here, and you can understand, maybe not, but it’s probably not a big deal..”

Like others, he says the arrival of Omicron — when cases rose dramatically but hospitalizations and deaths not among vaccinated people — was a turning point in attitudes among his co-workers. “People were really worried at the time, but since February, I don’t know, nobody seems to care that much.”

Lamar Curtis, who works as a bartender at Hell’s Kitchen, says “there’s less urgency overall,” before admitting, “Just because people are tired, they think it’s done — and that’s not how it works.”

Even workers who follow case trends say it is no longer their main concern. A Manhattan line cook, who asked to remain anonymous, says he is taking precautions to protect his family — a young son, a father-in-law with cancer — but that he cannot stay at home: “I have COVID tests. I need to do the responsible thing. I also need to work.”

If the prevailing mood among hospitality workers is one of ambivalence, many say this is a result of how pandemic restrictions were handled in the first place, changing and being enforced in ways that often felt arbitrary. (A bartender told me that when New York had a 10pm curfew and indoor dining was banned, he had a successful COVID “speakeasy” outside his workplace — and that when a police officer once visited, it wasn’t to shut the place down, but to tell the bartender what to do to avoid getting caught. When employees came to see if the company was following rules like contact tracing, he says “they didn’t even open the book.”)

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

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