Dinner and the Plague: Even as the state okays dining out, patrons need to do the right thing

James Norton & images from Yumi // Photos by Tj Turner

James Norton is The Growler’s Food Editor. The views and opinions expressed in this essay are his own. 

My mask is in my left hand. My glass is in my right hand. As the first sip of junmai ginjo sake hits my mouth, I can feel my eyes watering in response.

I live with my family in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis, and it has been four months of fear, disease, injustice, protest, arson, tear gas, and nonstop, essentially 24/7 childcare. This is the first time since it all started that someone has brought me a drink. The taste of the sake—full-bodied, bright, crisp—is now secondary to what that drink means. It’s hospitality.

It feels like drinking a deep ladle of cold well water after completing an oven-hot pilgrimage through the desert.

And yet: everything also feels wrong.

It’s not Yumi’s fault—the food and service is superb, on par with my skeptical but ultimately adoring review that ran in the Growler’s April edition. It’s not my fault—I’m deeply grateful to the chefs and servers and the taste of real sushi (as opposed to my shambolic homemade stuff) is electric.

It’s the fault of a government that politicized a health catastrophe, and a public that—in part—shrugged and decided to play along.

Dine at Your Server’s Risk

I didn’t want to dine out when Minnesota restaurants were re-opened last week, but restaurants are a large slice of my writing and missing this particular historical moment would be a serious mistake. So this Sunday I made an online reservation for one, grabbed a notepad and pen, and headed for St. Paul.

With all due respect to any given Applebee’s near White Bear Lake, Yumi isn’t any given Applebee’s near White Bear Lake. I was expecting most of the customers to be masked for some of the time. I was expecting visible confusion, conversations, anxiety, and a struggle to establish a new, safe, social norm.

But what I discovered was this, from a population of 26 patrons:

2 patrons—me and an older woman—were masked except when actively eating or drinking

1 patron, picking up take-out, was masked

2 patrons at the bar had masks available but had them off for the duration

The other 21 patrons, mostly sitting on the patio: no visible masks whatsoever

We wear masks not just to protect ourselves, but to protect others. Knowing that, these numbers are crazy. The idea that I might go out to a restaurant to amuse and restore myself and then hospitalize my server or put their parents in a morgue is utterly horrible to me.

But that’s not “getting back to normal.” The ideal of restaurant dining—relaxation and comfort—is inherently at odds with masked distancing. If you want to protect your server, you keep your mask at the ready and slip it on whenever they approach your table. That latent radar that you half-engage to figure out whether your food is on its way gets ramped up to 100 percent so that you won’t be caught off-guard.

To do otherwise—to lounge, to eat, to sip, to laugh, to talk and to connect without stress or worry—is to blast your pretty-much-by-definition underpaid servers with a stream of particles that could harm or conceivably kill them in as awful a manner as you can imagine.

In normal times, we all manage our own risk, and that makes sense. If you want to go motorcycling without a helmet? Okay! Climb Mt. Everest? Sure! Have a Tannerite target gender reveal party in the woods? I’ll RSVP “no,” but have fun! That’s the rugged American individualism that makes us the country that we are.

What doesn’t make sense is firing a rifle at random in a shopping mall, which isn’t terribly far off from mingling in public without a mask. And if that sounds overly dramatic, please talk to a healthcare worker.

Two Bad Choices We Didn’t Have to Make

We are between a rock and a hard place.

The rock is the disease. Without any immediate sign of a treatment, vaccine, or comprehensive federal government tracing program, we’re at the mercy of its ebb and flow, with outbreaks likely to continue for many months, if not years. People will die, and die horribly, and many others will have health problems for the rest of their lives. That is what’s at stake.

This argues: Don’t dine in restaurants. Don’t leave your house if you can avoid it. Mask up, and stay distant.

The hard place is the current economic system, which will allocate enormous amounts of money to bail out a secret list of businesses or fund semi-functional weapons systems while starving benefits programs that could sustain the bulk of the population during a national crisis. States are being compelled to reopen without any of the safeguards that make it reasonable to do so, adding to the death toll. Because some states and cities and restaurants and shops are going back to business as usual, their competition must follow suit or go under.

This argues: Support the businesses you care about. Order take-out whenever possible. Dine out if you must, but do so safely. But after you do that a few times… maybe don’t worry about it so much? Just relax! Things are “back to normal”! Now, that wasn’t so bad…

Until, of course, it is.

A Hard Road to Travel

The desire to get back to normal couldn’t be more human or more understandable. And once that’s coupled with a thumbs-up—however qualified—from the government, the self-serving skeptics, the exhausted and desperate, the know-nothings, and the monsters are going to run wild and order badly made margaritas. And giant cheeseburgers. And beautifully made sushi.

And in the process, these patrons may help restaurants stay afloat during one of the most challenging times in recorded history.

But: in the process of keeping them afloat, these patrons might be ramping us up toward a catastrophic disease spike that ends up shutting many of them down when public health and a lack of hospital beds demand another closure.

The whole mess taps into one of the most challenging things about America—and, indeed, about any culture anywhere in the world, at any time. What is legal is not necessarily moral. And when that’s the case, doing the right thing is expensive, and abusing the good of the many is easy as hell.

At the end of my meal at Yumi, I tip 40%. I’m not sure if it’s a thank you or an apology—it’s probably some of both. I’ll be back in a dining room again, I’m sure, but I don’t know when. Writing about restaurants necessitates being in them, so there’s a new normal to figure out. I’ll be wearing a mask. And I’m okay with that.