Was it a good idea to click on the profile of the person in my Facebook feed indignant over vaccine requirements? Probably not. But there, along with the anti-vaccine messaging, COVID-19 dismissal and fretting about freedom I expected, were snapshots of meals in restaurants around Humboldt. Some were at tables and in dining rooms I recognized. All brought to their table by a server.
Over and over as Humboldt swayed between yellow, orange, red and purple tiers, before those colors were scrapped for full reopening, diners asked themselves and each other whether it was OK to eat at restaurants. The more we learned about air circulation and transmission, the better we could weigh our risks and those we might pose to others, including our families at home. Maybe the patio but not the dining room; maybe that place with the tables spaced apart but not the intimate little bistro where we bump elbows with our neighbors. Maybe when our youngest kid is vaccinated. Maybe not yet. Meanwhile, restaurant workers, whose jobs bring them into close contact with people who necessarily remove their masks to eat and linger at their tables, or who work with others in cramped kitchens, were making their own decisions but with financial consequences pushing against the potential health risks.
Vaccination changed the calculus for many. Unlikely to get or pass the virus, they returned fearless (mostly) to shared meals at restaurants. That was before the Delta variant put a wobble in the table, lowering the percentages of our vaccines' effectiveness, driving up the chances of the vaccinated transmitting to others if we should end up with a breakthrough case. Then last week, we broke three county single-day records for confirmed cases, public health warned against large gatherings and reinstated the indoor public mask order, with a mere 55 percent of Humboldt's population vaccinated. Then, one by one, the festivals and events we looked forward to during the hopeful spring postponed or canceled entirely.
And just like that, we're back to asking each other, in that tentative way meant to tamp down conflict, Should we be eating in restaurants right now?
Whatever calculations you make, if you're unvaccinated, the answer is no. The risk to others — patrons and staff, alike — to whom you might potentially pass the far more contagious Delta variant and the risk to yourself, now even more vulnerable to infection by both the vaccinated and unvaccinated, is just too great. Following the rules in restaurants is good; tipping is good. But if you really want to support these local businesses and the people who keep them running, get vaccinated or get takeout.
In June, during the heady days between getting my shots and the sinking promise of a normal summer, I sat inside a restaurant and ate a little plate of oysters. I struggle more than usual to recall the taste, distracted as I was by my fellow diners, all of us with our masks off, sipping and tasting, talking and laughing. It was impossible to know, of course, who was vaccinated and who wasn't. A woman shouted above the din so her elderly companion could hear her and I pictured her aerosols, a foggy little cloud purling in the air with the force of her volume. The small children who gave up squirming in their seats to run around their table shouting and laughing didn't bring out my inner scold; they just made me anxious, as did their parents, cocktail giddy and swaying into the server's space.
It's easy tor pretend, in a hospitality business setting, that the customer is the only one with concerns. But as the pandemic has forced many to finally recognize, it's hardly the case. At the Trinidad Eatery, Betsy Musick, general manager of the 45-year-old business her parents Karen Gorick and Steve Musick have owned for the last 25, says this moment is "Exceptionally challenging. More so than the first round. More so than a year and a half in lockdown." While she herself is vaccinated, looking at the growing number of breakthrough cases is worrisome.
"It feels like in Humboldt County, [COVID] is closing in on us," she says. "This has all happened so quickly with this new variant ... . It feels like we have a lot to talk about. ... We have to provide [staff] with a safe work environment. Period."
Renata Maculans, owner of Renata's Creperie, says, "It was a joy to reopen our doors" in June. But two weeks ago, one of her staff fell ill with a breakthrough case of COVID-19. Everyone took rapid tests while that staffer isolated and recovered, and Maculans was relieved infection didn't spread among the staff. Still, there was no way of telling if they'd contracted the virus in the restaurant or elsewhere. She herself has what she describes as fairly serious lung issues and, asked if she feels safe donning her mask and serving the public, she replies, "No, not particularly." In fact, she's contemplating shifting back to to-go only. "It's really, really hard to figure out how to live with it ... and I just feel like the virus is everywhere now."
And now, says Maculans, she and her staff are "back in the mask fight," this time without a Plexiglas barrier for people to yell into. Occasionally, while trying to remind people walking through the restaurant unmasked, she looks at the ones sitting down with their masks off and wonders if it's worth it. The staff is wearing masks to protect customers, she notes, but how can they protect themselves? She says, "If there are people in the restaurant unvaccinated, or spreading it to other people who are unvaccinated, you know — I'm not personally eating out right now."
Having the state or county mandate proof of vaccination "would be amazing," she says, and at one point she wondered if she should "start taking all the hate for it" and ask for vaccination cards, but it seemed impractical and possibly even more stressful. "Because we have this collective loss and this collective trauma and this collective depletion ... when there are incidents, there's only so much you can take. Things affect you more than they normally would."
Musick says regulars and locals are more likely to comply with masking rules but out-of-towners who hail from counties and states where the rules are different don't always. "We're just looking down the hole of Labor Day weekend and visitors, and some are willing to follow the rules and some aren't." Sometimes those visitors scoff and sometimes they scream, dumping what she says feels like a year and a half's worth of frustration on restaurant workers. "It's now our job as a small business that's already taxed in so many ways that the general public has no idea, and now we're having to be health enforcers."
The vast majority of restaurant workers I've talked to say they do it because they love the people — their teams, their regulars. Watching how regulations and norms have evolved during the pandemic, from tipping for takeout to showing patience with slowed down service, has been revealing in terms of how that love is and isn't returned. We love our local restaurants in Humboldt and we sure as hell love food. But we need to love the people who make it for us, too. We have to care for them as they care for us, even if that means staying away, in the case of those of us who are still unvaccinated.
"I worry about all unvaccinated people," says Musick. "I think we all know people in our lives that aren't vaccinated. And I love those people ... I mean, how can you not? It's the human condition to care for people and we're in the business of caring for people."
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.