Confronting COVID-19: The Current Ethics of Eating Out

Confronting COVID-19: The Current Ethics of Eating Out
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The last four months of Coronavirus have been defined by widespread instability that is the result of healthcare shortages, supply chain disruptions, and employment uncertainty. As the United States has been in the throes of this pandemic, the summer of 2020 is one where we have lurched from crisis to crisis—starting with coronavirus in March and April, to reopening protests in May, and finally the murder of George Floyd in June. And as businesses have begun the slow, phased, process of beginning to reopen in July in an attempt to “return to normalcy,” cases of coronavirus have spiked. With unemployment benefits ending in July for many Americans, the case for reopening businesses and getting people back to work is one that is strong. But what of the actual ethics of eating out? After coming across an article on Eater about this very topic, I couldn’t help but ask this very same question for myself, my community, and those that I know. I think what makes the reopening narrative particularly complicated—especially for ethical consumers—is the fact that addressing the economic and societal problems associated with coronavirus tends to play out in a relatively zero-sum fashion. That is if one wishes to stay safe—one is probably staying home and not supporting local businesses—which affects the bottom line for people’s favorite shops, restaurants, bars, and all of the employees who work there. Inversely, if one wishes to support local businesses—even in the circumstance that people are practicing safety precautions, proximity and numbers can still put employees and other customers at risk. These problems are only further compounded with summer in full swing: there is a natural cause for people wanting to be outside and enjoy the weather—which is more than a just cause for businesses, particularly restaurants, attempting to attract sit down traffic with outdoor seating.

Here’s the thing: it totally makes sense for a business owner who has been scraping by in the red to want to attract customers that can help them recoup on their costs. The problem, however, is that for many businesses, recouping costs is being done at the expense of social responsibility. Stepping into town to run errands is usually characterized by seeing people seated at adjacent tables, fully packed brewery patios, and occupancy caps at supermarkets completely unenforced. In more rural communities, I have seen people seated at restaurants indoors, and regardless of whether I have been in towns, cities or the countryside, I have seen employees wearing their face masks incorrectly, if at all.

As one may suspect, the reopening of some businesses has also lead to the normalization of some social contact—regardless of how shrewd that may actually be. Thus, while businesses have opened to be patronized by sit down customers, people are beginning to reopen their homes for guests—and all of them are below the age of 30. On at least several different occasions, I have seen groups of almost a dozen individuals sitting on lawns watching sports, having house parties, or playing drinking games in broad daylight.

In so many ways, I think it would be easy to pin the blame of our inability to confront this disease on businesses—particularly ones that are direct to the customer, and rely on brick and mortar sales. But anybody who is making a realistic assessment of why we are where we are, understand that most business owners are just trying to get by like everybody else—they just have more overhead to manage. A business’ ability to sustain during crisis, however, is a function of more pervading factors such as savings, employment insurance, loan support, and paycheck protection. The aforementioned line items are all functions of the government—which employs (or resists) economic policy implementations based on capitalist principles. The reality is that while plenty can be said about social responsibility as it pertains to businesses that reopen, and the customers who patronize them, the greater critique resides with the system that both have to rely upon in order to make ends meet.

No, I am not saying that a desire to turn a profit, or the concept of a free market, is an inherently bad thing. However, this moment in time should highlight the current inefficacies of capitalism as it stands today, and for almost the last 300 years since it was invented. Traditionally, capitalism has benefitted the interests of the class with social and economic power, while sustaining the exploitation of those groups who have been obstructed from clearly participating within the system itself. In the case of modern-day capitalism, as it is affected by coronavirus, the people who are being exploited are not the restauranteurs, they are the restaurant workers.

Those who have the opportunity to eat at one of these establishments with little thought to the effects of their presence on those who work there, are the beneficiaries of capitalism. These people may work white-collar jobs, have established trades, or hold advanced degrees. Because most of these people work at home, their presence in the outside world is one that is no longer shaped by the necessity of a work commute, but the luxury of enjoying life outside of the house—at the expense of someone else. It is a certain type of bourgeoise cruelty that can cleverly masquerade as “supporting local business,” when in fact it is a self-serving action that is justified by a lack of mental fortitude—and intellectual laziness.

After all, while we may have convinced ourselves that outdoor dining is ok, if you are being waited on, at some point or another you are going to have to pay your waiter with a card or cash. Very few (if any at all), carry portable credit card terminals or near field communication technology, so going contactless is completely out of the option. Additionally, if you are at a restaurant, at some point you have to eat, which requires removal of a face mask and remember: face masks don’t prevent you from getting coronavirus—they prevent you from spreading it to someone else.

Thus, when considering the current ethics of eating out, the only consideration that actually seems to be getting made, are what these ethics are as they affect ourselves. Nevermind the fact that the patrons sitting next to us, or the waiter serving us, can be put at risk for our simply being there.

Like, seriously, who cares if your favorite foodie palace has a beautiful outdoor ambiance, freshly caught crab, or your favorite wine? Don’t claim to care if you can’t do your part. I think that for many it is easy to overlook the triviality of these line items or the risk that people are put in out of their simple pursuit because many feel “bored” or “inconvenienced” during what is traditionally the most social time of the year. While these actions try to be justified by food critics and average joes alike, let’s be clear: that is entitlement talking. Nobody’s life is worth your seafood dinner, fancy wine, or magical ambiance.

There are no ethics to eating out. Wake up already.