Indoor dining returned to New York the week of Valentine’s Day. Now, a little over a month later, COVID cases have plateaued. Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Earlier this month, a guidance counselor and a group of police officers walked into a Brooklyn sushi place. It was the first time the childhood friends had seen each other since January. That was when the 29-year-old counselor, who requested that I not use his real name for this story and whom I’ll call Kevin, asked to be taken out of the group-text thread. He began to fear for his personal safety after reading about his friends’ trips to all-you-can-eat restaurants and rock-climbing gyms in neighboring states. But now he was fully vaccinated, and the gang was getting back together.

Kevin lives in what he describes as the rare New York neighborhood where one might actually see a Trump flag, so he wasn’t worried about the social cost of being spotted dining indoors. He wasn’t sure that what he was doing was safe even after getting jabbed but figured his unvaccinated friends were going to do what they wanted whether he was there or not. There was also the fact that his favorite local spots in South Brooklyn don’t have the sidewalk real estate necessary to set up outdoor tables. Ultimately, he was able to rationalize having fun with the thought that he was helping his neighbors keep their jobs. As he put it, “There are two sides of this story, and I don’t think I fit squarely into one.”

Meanwhile, media coverage of the indoor-dining question has not afforded much nuance at all, as food writers take hard stances for or against indoor dining and tabloids gleefully report on the death threats hurled at influencers for posting about their restaurant excursions. It looked like any debate about indoor dining would be short-lived, with President Biden setting a May 1 deadline for states to offer vaccines to all adults. But in New York, infection cases have stopped decreasing, and as a result, some have questioned the safety of continuing to increase indoor-dining capacity limits, even as 25 percent of New Yorkers have received at least one vaccine dose.

It all begs another question: Given that indoor dining certainly correlates with increased case counts, and that we’re so close to the light at the end of the tunnel, who is really eating indoors during the pandemic’s final, turbulent months?

Marcel — who, like others in this story also asked to use a pseudonym because of the sensitivity of the subject — spent the majority of the pandemic working in a Manhattan beer hall next to a hospital. Given the location, most of his customers this past year have been medical workers, which is to say folks who are exposed to the virus so regularly that it has become quotidian. Marcel has always been the type to shake diners’ hands and tousle kids’ hair, sometimes even forming long-term friendships with the people to whom he brings food. But safety precautions made his job feel like drudgery for the first time. How is he supposed to deploy a personal touch when touching had been taken off the menu? In lieu of his usual routine, he has started using the shots as an icebreaker: Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Pfizer. Who had what, if any? 

The waiter, who is also 29, says he has noticed an almost completely even divide. The doctors and nurses who are eating indoors have all taken the shot, whereas the vast majority of his other customers refuse to get it entirely. “A lot of the young people coming in have already had COVID or they’re afraid of the side effects,” he explains. (Strangely, Marcel says the vaccine skeptics eating inside often request to be seated far away from anyone in scrubs.) After interacting with these two groups day in and day out, Marcel is left unsure of what to believe. “Someone told me that their arm hurt so bad after getting the vaccine that they couldn’t put on a jacket,” he claims. “I have no idea what’s real and what’s not, so personally, I will probably hold off on getting it for now.”

But while Marcel says he feels totally safe at work, Jennifer felt so scared about the prospect of indoor dining’s return that she quit her waitressing gig and left the city entirely. Though her ex-boss went so far as to hang signs in the bathroom warning customers to shut the toilet lid before flushing, she felt there was no way that being inside with guests was safe. There was also something about being allowed indoors that seemed to make customers forget about basic coronavirus precautions. “They would all almost instantly want to take their masks off once they got inside,” she says. “People eating outside would remember, and inside they forgot — I found it was very much a thing.”

Her former boss agrees that people dining indoors tend to behave worse than those who opt to sit outside, whether it’s a function of their higher tolerance for risk or something else. “I do think there’s something about the familiarity of being in the dining room and doing something the same way you did it before,” she says. “Outside, it’s a brand-new environment, at least in my restaurant. I think that, sometimes, people are just getting too comfortable, kind of like how the first thing you do when you get home is take your mask off and relax.”

Jimmy, a 33-year-old finance professional, just wanted to have a relaxing dinner with his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day. They had originally reserved an outdoor table at their favorite little Italian spot in Murray Hill, though it ended up being a little chillier than expected. Lucky for them, indoor dining had resumed that week. They’d already done it a handful of times earlier that winter with the mind-set that “at some point, we’re gonna have to take that step,” and they didn’t want to be cold on their big date. Plus, Jimmy kind of liked being inside when things were only operating at 25 percent capacity. All that space made it feel like he was back home in the Midwest.

But now Jimmy wonders if he got a little too comfortable while eating his steak-and-lobster-tail salad; he tested positive for COVID soon after. Fighting off the virus reminded him of the time he had been caught in an earthquake and didn’t know when the experience was going to end. The symptoms were bad — the most memorable was brain fog, which at one point got so bad he couldn’t remember Taylor Swift’s name. Now, though, he’s back in action, having most recently attended an eight-person indoor birthday party at another Italian place known for its convivial environment. It was a little surprising that the place was so popping, but he figured it would all be fine. After all, he hadn’t managed to infect his girlfriend when he was sick, and many of his friends already got COVID last year. Plus, when he called the last restaurant he’d been at to report his positive test, “it wasn’t a super-panicked situation.” And as for the staff at this other joint? “I did have some concern, but I’m sure they know there’s some sort of risk they’re obviously walking into, though I’m not an expert.”

When Kevin caught up with his friends at the sushi place, none of them bothered to put on a mask as the server approached their table. Kevin was also disappointed to hear that none had been inoculated during the time he had been MIA. (One friend, a police officer, told Kevin he had been in a cop car with his patrol buddy, who later tested positive, but he didn’t feel like getting an antibody test.) “There’s a whole culture of law enforcement making COVID into a political thing, where they’re less worried about it or just not interested in even getting the vaccine,” Kevin explains.

At first, he defended his friends, saying that this past year has been hard for the cops due to the nationwide protests against police brutality. But the more he thought about it, the angrier he got about his friends’ cavalier attitude. As someone who works in schools and is intimately aware of the psychological impact that the lockdown has had on kids, Kevin can’t help but feel that his friends are a part of the problem. It’s clear to him that they are never going to get vaccinated or take a break from dining indoors. No matter what their one liberal-leaning friend says, they’ll argue that they’ve been doing so this entire time and have been fine. Why would they expect a different outcome in the future? “I don’t follow that same line of logic,” Kevin ultimately concludes. “And to be honest, I definitely wouldn’t have become friends with them if I had met them as adults.”

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