Last weekend was a trial run. Texas reopened, and it was a test case of a gradually reawakened public sphere.
We knew the numbers of COVID-19 cases in Dallas were not on the decline. We knew certain restaurateurs were opening based on a thicket of considerations. We cannot seem to properly hold socially distant picnics or go on socially distant runs. It was bound to be a tricky landscape.
This is what I saw.
On the patio at Smoky Rose in East Dallas, servers wore bandanas around their necks like kerchiefs as they threaded through a landscape of tables spaced six feet apart. The casually tied bandanas looked to be, and functioned as, the accent in a jaunty outfit rather than a method of personal protection. Had they been provided? Had they been required? What exactly had been the communication between employer and employee about the tone, the tenor, the physical logistics of service in the midst of a pandemic that requires protective wear?
I continued on my trek, stopping in the parking lot of Velvet Taco to watch a trio eat at three seats inside, while others sat on the patio. They were alone as diners in a space where long communal tables—atop which, by the way, brown-paper towel rolls function as napkin dispensers—were not marked off to help people social distance. What happens when someone walks in, weaves their way to the counter to order, picks a seat close to your trio’s enclave? We are left to negotiate these uncomfortable realities.
Last week, we reported on the delicate situation restaurateurs and managers face, as they contemplate how to navigate gently policing customers in this new era of reopening. The service industry specifically has long been used to the domains of cleaning and protective equipment. Many owners and managers reopening this month are creating or have created staff positions whose sole job is to scour surfaces. Meanwhile, diners are left to be guinea pigs in an experiment of self-policing. How should we wear face masks in a situation that involves access to our mouths? (The answer seems to be, universally, we won’t.)
We’ve been speaking with workers in the service industry as well. Some are relieved to return to work. Many are nervous about interacting with a public they fear sees dining as their fundamental right.
Earlier that evening, I parked in one of the lots at Trinity Groves—the overflow lot was full and the row of extended patios glowed invitingly. Under white lights, the crowd looked like any other Saturday-night crowd. Yes, there was the buffer of servers in blue surgical masks and host stands outfitted visibly with large, pump-action hand sanitizer dispensers. Beyond them, though, was a sea of patio tables with diners sharing baskets of chips, drinking, dining. I witnessed at least two tables of six, all of the same age, arms around each other, looking like three couples. All I could think was that this represented three households, now shoulder to shoulder. I saw social-distancing bubbles, however rigorously they might have been maintained, collapsing over the course of a meal.
Many are nervous about interacting with a public they fear sees dining as their fundamental right.
Dining with others is one of the things I, like many, miss most in this period of confinement and isolation. As someone who lives alone, I fantasize about dinner parties. I feel, almost palpably, the deep sensation of intimacy that we engender around a table. (As someone who dined out frequently as part of my work, the notion of dining—and the complicated apparatus is represents—is complex beyond anything I could try to express simply here and now.)
But even as someone whose every fiber yearns to support and reanimate something I care deeply about, I leave this weekend feeling no tug. Social distancing works, until it doesn’t.
I’m not sure any meal is worth that.