Reopening restaurants now for indoor dining, at any level of capacity, is at best fraught and at worst an act of depravity.
On Aug. 26 — the same day news broke that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, under pressure from the Trump administration, had changed its COVID-19 testing recommendations to exclude asymptomatic persons who’ve come in contact with those carrying the virus (and who might be presymptomatic) — the president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association joined those pleading for restaurants to be permitted to open at 50% capacity. This request is based in part on the fact that restaurants haven’t been definitively linked to spikes in COVID-19 cases. Of course, they haven’t been definitively excluded, either. Reopening is a recipe for chaos and potential tragedy.
As a restaurant owner, I’m sympathetic to the PRLA’s predicament. Once the cold weather makes outdoor dining an impossibility, indoor dining at 25% just means slow death for restaurants. We won’t be able to retain all our staff or pay our bills. Fifty percent capacity might allow some — but not all, or maybe even most — of us to weather the winter months. Maybe we could retain most of our staff, but probably not.
Meanwhile, a photo of Mayor Jim Kenney dining indoors in Maryland, after he’d mandated that Philly’s dining rooms remain closed until Sept. 8, threatens to hijack and obscure the real issues. The mayor’s personal choices have nothing to do with formulating sensible public policy. While his decision might merit criticism, it does not undermine the science underlying the argument against indoor dining, nor eliminate the additional and unacceptable risks such dining presents.
Reopen or lose our restaurants remains a false choice. As I previously wrote for The Inquirer, this country has the resources to shut us (and all nonessential small businesses) down and provide our teams relief and protections, allow universal access to testing and health care, make testing readily available, and perform the contact tracing necessary to slow COVID’s spread. It simply chooses not to. Instead, we’re seeking to limit testing and deprive ourselves of the data essential to making educated choices. It’s sociopathic.
The country clearly values commerce over human life. By passing the buck to restaurant owners (and others), we’re hoping to leverage their economic desperation to reboot the economy. My wife and I may own our restaurant, but we aren’t gods and don’t feel qualified to make potential life-and-death decisions for our staff. Our people have cheerfully and professionally taken on the challenge of outdoor dining. And yes, we’re fortunate to have an outdoor area in which conscientious spacing still allows for a reasonable level of business. But indoors, where all evidence suggests that COVID-19 spreads with greater efficiency, is another story altogether.
Reopening won’t even achieve its economic goals. At 25% or 50% of occupancy, restaurants will continue to die, and jobs will continue to be lost. We need additional relief in the form of Small Business Administration loans and Paycheck Protection Program monies that will allow us to fully retain staff (as we’ve done) through a winter shutdown and pay them a living wage. These steps and requisite testing, successful in other countries, will save our economy from long-term catastrophic loss. It will hold the fort until a vetted vaccine becomes available. This is what the PRLA and like organizations should advocate for.
Instead, as we head toward cold and flu season, with inadequate testing that’s often hard to access and can take more than a week to provide results, we’re thinking of opening indoors. Every sniffle, every sore throat, every ambiguous symptom will become reason for fear. Is it COVID-19? Should we shut down the restaurant, have everyone tested, and wait for the results? Should we reach out to all our guests who might’ve come in contact with a particular staff member? Should we contribute to a spike in this lethal virus — that leaves some survivors with potentially permanent, life-altering health issues — at a time when hospitals will be extra-stressed treating those suffering serious bouts of the flu? Should we just pass the buck to health-care workers, some of whom still lack adequate PPE?
My wife and I aren’t alone among restaurateurs in saying we won’t reopen indoors. Not under these conditions. We don’t believe our employees are disposable. Or our guests. We won’t be part of a depraved system that values the almighty buck above human life. If that means Le Virtù is doomed, so be it. We have to be able to look ourselves in the mirror.
Francis Cretarola is the owner, with his wife Catherine Lee, of Ristorante Le Virtù.