A memoir of working at a restaurant amid COVID-19

Faith Quigley is a senior media studies major.

GRAPHIC BY NATALIE MORRIS/GRAPHICS CENTER

My hands are always dry from the constant handwashing, several pairs of my black pants are now covered with bleach marks, and my face is always breaking out from my mask. But, as an essential worker, I am lucky to have a job and grateful that the small Inner Richmond restaurant that employs me, Tastebuds, is not one of the hundreds in the Bay Area to permanently shut its doors this year after the wringer restaurants have been through.

It has been a learning experience adjusting to all the regulations, not only for restaurant owners but for employees, too, who have to ensure not only their own safety but that of every customer. 

At the start of the Bay Area’s shutdown in March, San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s shelter-in-place order caused thousands of restaurant owners and employees to feel unsure about what the next couple of weeks would bring. But, seven months later, this state of uncertainty is still our reality. 

In the spring, many restaurant owners scrambled to try to keep their businesses afloat by adapting their models to accommodate new Centers for Disease Control (CDC)-mandated sanitation and safety measures. Takeout and delivery became their main production option, and in many cases, scaling down the menu became a key way to cut costs associated with managing stock. In addition, crowdfunding pages popped up so patrons and devoted regulars could purchase merchandise or gift cards to redeem once things returned to normal. Being a server during this period entailed a lot of slow shifts, but I still had hope that this pandemic might soon be over. 

However, as weeks and then months passed this summer, businesses started closing. For many, the minimal revenue from takeout and delivery was not enough to keep up with the city’s high rent costs. Restaurant workers’ hours were cut even more — I began closing up shop after a mere five hours of being open instead of after the usual 12-hour days.

Finally, on June 15, restaurants in the Bay Area were able to open for outdoor dining. It was a hard transition at first because, as an employee, I had become accustomed to having the majority of the restaurant to myself, feeling mostly insulated and safe to remove my mask for sips of water and on my lunch break. Now, with guests flooding in who were not yet used to the new in-person dining experience, there have been lots of new rules to learn, enforce, and figure out together. 

This fall, having to remind customers to keep their masks on when visiting the restroom or when they take off their mask while being approached by restaurant staff has been an awkward and uncomfortable task. Many people still do not understand mask-etiquette — the fact that your mask is supposed to cover your nose and not fall down when you speak. After patrons partake in my restaurant’s intoxicating bottomless mimosa brunch, this becomes an even harder task to enforce. 

Because I come home from work to several roommates, I feel a responsibility to adhere to every safety guideline to not put them at risk because of the exposure involved in my job. This became increasingly difficult to maintain, though, since indoor dining at limited capacity was reinstated on Sept. 30. And, like many of you, seeing groups of people indoors with their masks off makes me anxious, especially since I have to be around them every day. 

It is a tricky conflict to try to balance supporting restaurants during this time while also ensuring the safety of your coworkers and yourself by minimizing interactions, and staying masked and socially distanced. So while I encourage people to continue to eat out because of how many of our beloved Bay Area restaurants are suffering, I say so with caution and with the hope that everyone will continue to try to keep those who work at these establishments safe and healthy. The future is unclear, but we are all in this together. I am grateful for my health and for my employment, and I hope the industry is able to blossom and thrive again soon.


If you’re worried about whether your favorite San Francisco hole-in-the-wall restaurant is still in business, take a look at the San Francisco Chronicle’s running list.

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