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One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, a look back on its impact on the restaurant industry and its workers

The past few days have been marked by a collective tallying: of firsts and lasts, of what was but now isn’t, of what is not but could have been. This was the day 12 months ago that I last saw any of my friends outside the confines of a screen. It was the second week of March when I first noticed someone wearing a mask in public. Exactly one year ago today I felt nervous about being at work, unsure if even being there was a good idea. The last meal in a restaurant. The first recognition that “normal” was not coming back anytime soon.

On March 9, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic. Mandated shutdowns soon followed: On March 15, the mayors of Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco announced impending lockdowns that would close restaurant dining rooms, among other public spaces, to slow the spread; the next day, New York City would shut down indoor dining, and much of the country followed. The early days of the plague year were marked by confusion (do I need to wipe down my groceries?), worry (did my brother’s roommate get him sick?), naivete (this will be over in two weeks, right?), and yes, panic — over one’s health, over the status of one’s livelihood, over the practical matters of day-to-day life that suddenly seemed impossible to achieve.

The later days brought frustration, boiling into anger, over the thought that all this should have been avoided. The millions of workers who make up the food and restaurant industry have paid more of the cost of the pandemic — calculated, crudely, as 530,000 lives lost and millions of livelihoods destroyed — than many. Designated at the beginning as “essential” frontline workers, food service workers are still now, in many states, ineligible for the vaccine or guaranteed hazard pay. Even as, a year into the crisis, every day appears more hopeful than the last — President Joe Biden has announced that a vaccine will be available to every American as soon as May 1 — it’s not “over.” It’s also not clear “over” should be the same as moving on: Many of the inequities that the pandemic and the world it made rendered too visible to ignore any longer — whose lives we valued less than their contributions to the economy; who still needed to fight for their rights to breathe, to exist, to thrive; literally who lived and who died — are finally getting some of the attention they deserve from those in power.

Where we go from here is an open question. But wherever we choose should be informed by the staggering realities that came to light — as well as the triumphs, however small, that emerged against all odds over the past year.

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