Restaurant News

Why Our Food Critic Won’t Be Eating at Restaurants When They Reopen

Arizona restaurants are set to resume dine-in service on May 11. But you might want to think twice before you eat at them.
Arizona restaurants are set to resume dine-in service on May 11. But you might want to think twice before you eat at them. Jackie Mercandetti Photo
I miss meeting friends out over shared food. I miss sliding into a booth, asking servers about their favorite dishes, and ordering whatever they answer. I miss posting up at the bar. Watching chefs move in open kitchens. Ordering a second drink. I miss the thrill of setting your eyes to a new menu, and the feeling when your food comes. I miss restaurants. But I won’t be eating in them when they reopen for dine-in service on May 11.

We all want to be in restaurants again. We all want them to recover. We all want to help give them the financial space to hone their crafts, further their sustainability missions, and support their staffs and supply chains.

If these were the only puzzle pieces — these and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s May 11 green light for reopening — the choice would be simple. But the puzzle is vast and complicated, and I strongly believe we should consider it more fully before rushing to restaurants when they open.

First, we should look at this curve for which we have stayed inside two months to flatten. The curve? Not a curve. It is a fast-rising line, shaped like the start of a roller coaster, like the early skyward arc of a home run blasted into the pool at Chase Field.

click to enlarge Scenes from the farmers' markets during the COVID-19 pandemic. - CHRIS MALLOY
Scenes from the farmers' markets during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chris Malloy
We have stayed inside to curb the spread of this virus, to save lives, and not just our own, but the lives of others who may be more vulnerable. Opening restaurants before we have a true handle on the pandemic will sicken more people and, in time, complicate and lengthen recovery. For restaurants. For everybody.

Nothing speaks to the hazards of reopening quite as eloquently as Arizona’s lack of coronavirus testing. Though it has increased some, it has been paltry. And testing is one of the first steps to beating the virus. Without proper testing, we can’t know what we don’t know. But we must know that we’re not ready.

While it is reassuring that the executive muscle of our state government has thought about diner safety, the state's plan, like a slice of freshly baked sourdough, has several holes. First, the plan suggests that diners consider eating in restaurants during off-peak hours. This isn’t realistic. People can’t snap and magically restructure their workdays, their childcare, and their generational mealtime traditions. Second, it calls for maintaining a 6-foot buffer between yourself and others. How is that possible at a bar? In the entryway? In the tight hallway to the bathroom?

Tellingly, the plan recommends keeping your hands away from your mouth. How, then, are you supposed to get your food there?

This is just a cursory look at a few of the many risks to diners. Arguably, there are even greater risks to restaurant staff — many of whom commute to their jobs using crowded public transportation, work in close quarters, and must repeatedly come within 6 feet of diners.

Taking an optimistic view, COVID-19, though a disaster, has created a unique chance at change. The restaurant industry has long operated on a deeply flawed business model, on a status quo propped up by underpaid workers, many lacking basic protections like healthcare. The industry has had a chance to rethink its normal over these past few months. This is a massive task, and positive changes will take vision, risk, and time. I don’t think that allowing restaurants to reopen during a still-rampant pandemic gives leaders the right stage to properly address these well-known cracks in the foundation of the industry.

Try to imagine the post-pandemic logistics and financials from the restaurant’s standpoint. Things will change, even if restaurants open once the pandemic has ended. Opening early puts an added burden on restaurants. For one, the state’s release encourages restaurants to screen employees for COVID symptoms. Screen for symptoms? That sounds like more of a doctor’s job to me. Other recommendations look to be just as onerous. For instance, how are restaurants to survive at “reduced capacity” when most could barely make payroll going full-speed-ahead in good times?

click to enlarge A map from 2018 shows the severity of the drought in the Southwest, which continues to this day. - NASA
A map from 2018 shows the severity of the drought in the Southwest, which continues to this day.
Zooming out even further, the broken logic of a May 11 opening looks grim when we apply it to other problems. If we aren’t selfless enough to stay at home for long enough to flatten the COVID curve, for the human good, then what does that say about other 21st-century issues? Opening restaurants at this stage of the pandemic reflects a destructive, callow impatience. It speaks to our inability to intelligently put aside our short-term wants so that we can address medium- and long-term needs. In a way, this pandemic is a tiny pop quiz, a brief warm-up for far more complex and massive existential tests on the near horizon.

In the Southwest this century, we’re projected to have megadroughts due to climate change — dry periods that will last decades, unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times. These will ripple to all sectors of our food systems. This century, the earth is projected to get warmer by a few degrees, transforming forests, oceans, and deserts, wrenching agriculture and wild foods, and jarring our foodways with an intensity that will make COVID look like a speed bump. How can we begin to solve bigger, more intricate problems if we can’t even approach this comparatively simpler problem sensibly?

When May 11 rolls around, I’ll still be eating takeout — maybe mackerel fried rice, maybe a gordita or two. And I’ll be pondering how we can best rebound from this pandemic, about how we can change and better prepare for the challenges to come. 
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy