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5 restaurant workers share their fears about going back to work

“The customer is always right, even during the pandemic.”

A waiter wearing a protective face shield and mask serves customers at a Third Street Promenade restaurant on June 21, 2020, in Santa Monica, California.
David Livingston/Getty Images

“All of us workers, we’re scared shitless,” said Shanga McNair, a bartender in Florida who recently went back to work.

As states have aggressively pushed to reopen (and many too soon, according to experts), patrons are rushing to eat in restaurants for the first time in months. There are new regulations in place, varying by state and county, with some restaurants enforcing their own rules, including tables spaced 6 feet apart, reduced seating capacity, and disposable menus. But even wearing a mask is challenging in a restaurant setting: “You can’t wear a mask and eat your food and drink your drink,” said Kayla Harter, a server from Southern California.

Restaurant work looks very different than it did before the coronavirus, and those returning to serve customers in person are putting their lives at risk. Many employees have been out of work for months, scrambling to make ends meet, and are forced to go back to their jobs no matter what it costs their health. Others lost their employment during the pandemic — with restaurants closing or winnowing staff — and still others have chosen, as reopening ramps up, not to go back to work. Vox talked to five servers, bartenders, and kitchen staffers about the fears and necessities of working in the food service industry during a pandemic.

“We’re trying to do our best”

When we get into work we put our stuff down, we put a mask on, we clock in, and then we get our temperature taken. As long as we have a temperature under 100, we can start working. If it’s higher than 100, we need to wait five minutes and then try again because it’s really hot here. Once we’re ready to start work, we’ll wash our hands, put on gloves, and then open up our section.

Speaking through a mask, and people not always being able to understand what I’m saying, that means that there are sometimes errors in the order. So just being aware of that and learning, making sure I really clarify with my guests what they’re asking for as well as being spatially aware. I don’t have peripheral vision down from my mask. I’ve run into people way more than I have in the past, or tripped on things because I just don’t see below a certain point. But the guests have been excited to be back in the restaurant, and they often have, you know, empathy and compassion for us as we’re trying to do our best.

We’ve had a few issues with people almost wanting to get into fights with us about the fact that we only have five people sitting at each physical table. We’ve had multiple parties walk out or start a fight with the manager or just become hostile because of that rule. But other than that, people have been pretty compliant.

—Michaela Frantz, server, Las Vegas, Nevada

“I chose not to go back”

I chose not to go back, because [my] restaurant is in downtown Huntington Beach, which has been the site of a lot of anti-mask rallies and protests. So I chose not to go back quite yet, and I’m actually very glad I did because I guess it has been, first of all, a shitshow. This last week, four of my coworkers tested positive for Covid. Actually, a lot of different restaurants in the Orange County area have had staff outbreaks in the last couple weeks.

I only worked maybe two to three days a week, but it was about $1,500 to $2,000 a month and so it’s just been really interesting having to reallocate my funds and figure things out.

I have a respiratory immune deficiency where I don’t have the antibodies to fight off pneumonia, and I also got a kidney removed in December. Since Covid causes pneumonia and affects your kidneys, I really shouldn’t get this. So when the cases go down, I probably will [go back to work].

Most of the staff was not comfortable to go back, but a lot of people had no choice. So I strongly urge all my friends [not to] be selfish and sit in a restaurant just because you missed it. You’re putting other people’s lives at risk and their families’ lives at risk.

—Kayla Harter, server, Orange County, California

“People are still willing to come in and put in the effort to make sure the restaurant is going to survive”

Being back at work, it feels like more of a community push. Everyone at work isn’t necessarily there because they need to come back to work, and they’re worried about themselves. I’m in a fortunate situation where I work in a place where we’re all kind of gathered, or rallying around the business itself.

People are still willing to come in and put in the effort to make sure the restaurant is going to survive. I think that is a big driving factor behind everyone’s push right now. Before, it never really occurred to anyone that the business would not be able to keep up, and now it’s on the front of everyone’s minds.

—Zach Van Horn, cook, State College, Pennsylvania

“I’m scared of getting sick and then passing it on to my family, but there’s nothing I can do”

We’re not making money like we used to, but we can’t not go to work. You have to go to work; if you don’t go to work, you can’t get unemployment.

So, I mean, it’s just a shitshow right now. I’m scared, you know — I’m scared of getting sick and then passing it on to my family, but there’s nothing I can do.

I’m 40, and I have a daughter. She’s 20 and she lives in Mississippi and she works in the service industry. So [one day] I’m behind the bar and I get a call from my daughter. So I pick up my phone and she was like, “Ma, I tested positive.” I didn’t know what to do because she’s far away from me. She’s in Mississippi with my grandparents, and my grandparents are almost 80.

So I tell my boss, “Look, my daughter just tested positive, so I gotta go, I gotta figure out what to do.” And he was like, “If you leave, you’re fired.”

—Shanga McNair, bartender, Jacksonville, Florida

“The customer is always right, even during the pandemic”

We don’t give out condiments anymore. We give out little portions of steak sauces and ketchup and salt and pepper packages, but we don’t give bottles anymore. And we get lots of complaints about that. All of the servers and everybody who’s out on the floor has to wear a mask, and we get complaints about that. And we’re just sanitizing everything more now. We don’t give out menus anymore, we give out paper menus, or there’s a QR code on the table that they can scan for the menu. Because I work in Texas at a steakhouse, a lot of the guests that come in think the virus is a hoax, and they’ll resent us for wearing a mask and they’ll complain about the way things are different.

I’m making money again, but it’s my only option. I like being able to pay my bills, but they just kind of like threw us out there to the dogs; we’re not getting protected at all. We’re having to wear masks, we’re required to for the guest safety, but the guests can basically do whatever they want and we just have to take it, because the customer is always right, even during the pandemic.

—Kennedy Hogan, server, Temple, Texas