The people of Memphis and Shelby County face the same dilemma confronting communities across the United States. Infection rates for COVID-19 continue to rise as communities re-open their economies. As we enter our fifth month of this crisis, I deeply want to return to my favorite restaurants and bars. We miss eating out, enjoying the hospitality of our city’s eateries, and being with friends and family. But going out for a meal or a drink places patrons and staff in those spaces and the people they live and work with at risk.
With the reported number of COVID-19 cases doubling each month since the first reported cases in Shelby County, I don’t see us dining or drinking inside a restaurant or bar for the rest of the year. I hate saying this for a number of reasons. We love spending time with friends over a glass of wine and a delicious meal. We enjoy friendships with those who own and work in our neighborhood restaurants. We love and respect them for trying their best to hold their restaurants and businesses together.
Many of the people working in the restaurant industry remain vulnerable to prolonged exposure to the public in an enclosed space. People of color and recent immigrants tend to be over-represented in the kitchens which prepare our food. Many lack adequate access to healthcare and health insurance. Such disparities predate the advent of COVID-19. Restaurant workers should be able to earn a living without unnecessary risk caused by the public they serve. Asking diners to enjoy their food in a way that promotes everyone’s safety seems the gracious and righteous thing to do.
Given what we know about transmission and the number of folks now infected, eating and drinking indoors while mingling with others is more hazardous than when the pandemic began in our community. When people speak, yell, sing, cough or sneeze, exposure and transmission risk increases. In a closed environment, the virus level builds as those who are infected sit at a table over a meal or a drink. Sitting inside a restaurant dining room feels like asking for trouble.
When I drive down Madison Avenue and Cooper Street in Midtown or scroll through my social media, I see people eating inside restaurant dining rooms without masks or social distancing. I read posts defending going out when safer options remain available. Many of these folks claim that they are healthy and can survive infection. They may be right, but they don’t know for sure. And what if any of us who are healthy and asymptomatic enter public spaces and infect those who may suffer the worst symptoms after they catch it from us.
President Barack Obama placed a short inscription on his desk in the Oval Office during his administration which read: Hard things are hard. We all feel the loneliness of isolation from friends and family. The easier path is to simply return to business as usual. Meet our friends for dinner. Stop for a drink at our favorite watering hole and check in with the familiar faces we miss. Finding creative ways to be together as social creatures requires us to think creatively about how to do that. That is the shared sacrifice to which we are called.
I will continue to do a lot of cooking at home. We will continue to hold cocktail hours and dinner time over Zoom with those we love. We may establish a small quaranteam with social distancing to stem the isolation we feel. We will also try eating outdoors at our favorite places as long as comfortable temperatures allow. We can continue to order delivery and take out to support local restaurants as much as we can. We will not order food through third party apps like Uber Eats, DoorDash, etc., because they profit from restaurants struggling to stay in business. The need for my local neighborhood eateries to remain in business outweighs any convenience these apps offer.
We urge others to do the same as we all long for some semblance of the civilization we once enjoyed. We’re all in this together whether we want to be or not. I hope that all of us make it to the other side of this crisis unscathed.
Take responsibility for one another. Be safe. Be nice. Be respectful. Be well.
I am not an epidemiologist or infectious disease expert. I offer the above post after reviewing data from the Shelby County Health Department and news from evidence based research. I urge you to remain current on the latest news and data shared about the COVID-19 pandemic when making personal safety decisions that also affect others in your community. When I say “we” above, I may be referring to me and my husband or all of us.