For the past few months, New York City has permitted diners to spill out of restaurants and onto curbs, transforming streets into streateries as restaurants try to stay afloat. Winter is coming, however, and there’s only so much of the year when most New Yorkers can comfortably sit outdoors, even under tents and heat lamps.
But indoor dining is, clinically speaking, dangerous. Over the past six months, virologists have repeatedly demonstrated how efficiently COVID-19 leaps across tables when maskless people laugh and shout at each other over a pizza and a spicy Pinot; the diagrams showing the transmission patterns leading to disease clusters look like a maître d’s seating chart at your favorite neighborhood joint. Allowing diners to safely return to New York’s cheek-to-jowl dining rooms with the requisite six feet between them will require a delicate balance of logistics and technology, and heck of a lot of science.
Rather than addressing indoor dining with the evidence-based approach he claims to be so fond of, Governor Andrew Cuomo has a better idea: cops. Lots of cops.
NEW: Cuomo says indoor dining *might* happen *if* NYC allocates a certain number of NYPD police to a taskforce to enforce social distancing— Zach Williams (@ZachReports) September 3, 2020
"Put together a task force of NYPD Speaker Johnson and say they're going to be 4k police who are going to be doing restaurant compliance"
“I don’t want to be in a situation where we’re opening thousands of restaurants and [have] no capacity to monitor it,” Cuomo said at a press conference on Thursday morning. He recommended that City Council speaker Corey Johnson assemble a “task force” with 4,000 police officers to enforce social distancing in restaurants.
Yes, that’s correct. Heavily armed city employees who are notorious for not wearing masks would be enforcing the guidance put forth by the public-health department, which requires mask-wearing. We’ve already seen what an equitable, evenhanded job the NYPD has done when it comes to enforcing social distancing in parks and public spaces: Eighty percent of summonses went to Black and Latino residents during the first two months of the pandemic. Is there any doubt that militarizing restaurants would go the same way?
Despite their questionable skill at enforcing basic health guidelines, the café cops would also wield power over an industry that’s highly dependent on undocumented workers. Knowing that your workplace could receive a “surprise” visit from the cops — a heartbeat away from ICE — will introduce additional stress and trauma during an already-terrifying time.
And who will decide where the 4,000 officers are deployed? Do they go to neighborhoods with the most COVID-19 cases, adding extra-intense policing to lower-income communities where tensions with the cops run highest? Will they instead be deployed to well-off neighborhoods as a pure (and rather cynical) revenue play? Would chains be held to different standards than small businesses? There’s no winning strategy here.
As Gothamist reported, the governor chose Johnson as the deputy of dining rooms because he’s been advocating for opening indoor dining on behalf of restaurant owners, including a group of restaurateurs that has filed a $2 billion class-action lawsuit. Johnson wants to be mayor — he’s planning to run next year — and he’s among the more progressive of the likely candidates. If he signs onto this plan (at least under Cuomo’s terms), it could shore up his right flank and his donor base; it could also massively disappoint his core voters, many of whom are marching to defund the NYPD.
Cuomo’s hard-line stance might be motivated by a desire to show affluent diners he’s serious about keeping them safe so they’ll return to restaurants in (responsibly distanced) hordes. But that’s the thing: The diners are only part of the story. It is, perhaps, possible to keep them safe while they sit indoors to eat for 45 minutes. It is much more difficult to care for the servers shimmying through aerosolized dinner conversations, the cooks bumping elbows in microscopic kitchens, the dishwashers scrubbing pre-chewed food fragments off flatware — all of whom will be exposed to more people in close quarters. Takeout, delivery, and streateries haven’t led to any major outbreaks so far, but what happens when you throw 4,000 cops into the mix who aren’t familiar with safety protocols and don’t have the livelihoods of workers top of mind?
But all that in turn suggests an idea: The best people to protect and serve restaurants are food-safety experts who have a vested interest in preserving their own industry. In the same way an army of contact tracers is being hired and trained to track COVID-19 cases, the city should recruit and speed-train 4,000 new restaurant inspectors. In fact, the job would be perfect for unemployed workers from hundreds of shuttered restaurants — an estimated 60 percent of hospitality employees in the city are jobless.
Right now, New York City employs only about 100 health inspectors in a system that’s crying out for reform. This moment provides an opportunity for the city to change the way compliance works. And it doesn’t need to be punitive: In Los Angeles, where only outdoor dining is allowed, the county health department is able to inspect as many as 1,000 restaurants per day for compliance with social-distancing rules. No restaurant owners, employees, or diners have been penalized yet, although a fine structure starting at $100 for the first offense will go into place this month. Compliance has improved dramatically since the rules went into place two months ago.
Cuomo does a lot of grandstanding on quality-of-life issues — like when he declared himself the arbiter of which bar snacks qualify as food. And this isn’t the first time he has proposed throwing police at a New York City problem that does not require them, putting its most vulnerable residents at risk in the process. (Remember, the biggest police union — and surely many of its members individually — have endorsed the reelection of their fellow New Yorker Donald J. Trump.) Seemingly several decades ago — all right, it was last November — Cuomo said he needed 500 more officers to patrol the subway to combat fare evasion, basically spending $249 million on a $200 million problem.
The city’s outdoor-dining program is slated to end October 31. Why not throw some of the police budget toward subsidized heat lamps to keep diners and workers in the open air as long as possible — maybe even all winter long? If New York dining ever does move back inside, the city needs to do everything it can to shut the cops out.