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La cantina de la Universidad Nacional de Ciencias y Tecnología de Taiwán, en Taipei. Foto: Ann Wang / Reuters
The canteen at the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology in Taipei. Photo: Ann Wang / Reuters

Cooking up chaos: U.S. restaurants aren't ready to open their doors

Without specific protocols and sticking solely to economic arguments, states like Georgia lift the quarantine without thinking about the more than 54,000…

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The South Korean philosopher Byung Chul Han spoke last March about the cultural differences between Asian and Western countries when it comes to dealing with the pandemic and the reasons why, while places like Hong Kong or Taiwan have been able to control the spread of the virus, it's unstoppable in Europe and, above all, in the United States, where the number of people killed by COVID-19 is over 54,000

The South Koreans focused on an obvious detail: while in Asia there has always been collectivist thinking -for better and for worse- American neoliberalism is the big problem of the pandemic for the U.S. 

The reopening of business in many states such as Georgia, Montana or Alaska, which even President Trump has called "premature," poses a huge scythe-shaped question that makes experts tremble when they warn of a resurgence of the pandemic. 

Renowned chefs like David Chang and culinary organizations across the country are looking East and studying how restaurants have been transformed to reopen their doors, without taking the obvious into consideration. As Dorothy says in The Wizard of Oz, "We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto." 

But the United States is not Hong Kong, nor do its people have a collectivist mentality, nor used to living with epidemics like SARS for 16 years.

Dining out in Hong Kong

A few days ago, the writer Andrew Genung published in Eater a chronicle of his dinner adventures in a well-known Hong Kong restaurant. The bars are closed in the city, but restaurants are still open.

Genung explained how the city has been an "anti-contagious" place for years, with posters in elevators reminding residents of the frequency with which buttons have to be sterilized and the historical use of masks in the streets. 

"Long before COVID-19, it would have been difficult to go to Hong Kong one day and not see someone wearing a mask. They are so common that if you meet a friend on the street and someone asks you later if the friend has worn one, you may not remember," he wrote. 

Upon entering the restaurant, Genung had his temperature taken, something that must be done for both staff and customers. Then, the guests must sign a health declaration - the pen is also sterilized - in which they assure that they have not left the city in the last 14 days. They must also include their personal details so, in case of contagion in the restaurant, they can keep the customer on their radar and isolate them. The first question Genung asked is: What would happen in the United States with these privacy policies? 

"I have heard many people (in Hong Kong) complain about the loss of non-verbal communication behind masks," Andrew Genung.

The restaurant surfaces are also disinfected every half hour and customers eat at tables with no more than four people and 1.5 meters away from each other. Big group dinners are over. 

Inside, all the waiters attend tables wearing surgical masks and give the guests an envelope so they can keep their own masks while eating. Sometimes the customer is also allowed to keep the mask on their knees. 

"I've heard many people complain about the loss of non-verbal communication behind the masks, the lost smiles or the bitten lips, but the hardest part for me was the few times I couldn't understand what my waiter was trying to ask me," the journalist added.

After dinner, he tried to go down to the local cocktail bar. No one sits at the bar anymore. They order their drinks and stand against the wall. There are no stools, and everyone respects social distance. The idea of the bar as a place to meet and talk is over. 

Police patrols patrol in the streets on Friday nights to enforce the rules on those who believe that leisure is "it," a life where the socializing has changed or no longer exists.

Dining out in Wuhan

The 11 million citizens of Wuhan, in China's Hubei province, the source of the coronavirus pandemic, can now go out drinking, but no one is thirsty or hungry. Or rather, they are more afraid than both. 

As restaurant chain owner Xiong Fein told Bloomberg, consumer habits have changed since the beginning of the pandemic that claimed 2,500 lives in the Chinese city alone. The end of the lockdown, he said, has not brought relief to the hospitality industry, but new challenges

"There will definitely be selected restaurants," said Feing. "The market follows natural selection, and only the fittest will survive."

The entrepreneur warned that customers are far fewer and that the future now seems to be home service. Despite losing 2 million yuan ($282,402.82) this year, he invested in a packaging machine and is trying to start a streaming channel with his cousin, a former model, cooking in one of the restaurants and eating the food, which has been a trend in Asia for several years.

American chaos

Chef Chang also began his own research into how he might reopen his restaurants in the United States. A few days ago, he asked his followers on social media to send him pictures of businesses in Asia to find out what actions they are taking: 

In many places, according to the photographs they sent him, restaurants had put up cardboard ceilings to separate the tables. Others used duct tape to prevent diners from sitting where they really wanted to. In wealthy restaurants, such as Hong Kong's Yardbird, Plexiglas dividers were built.

What small or medium-sized business in the United States can afford to build Plexiglas tabletops to separate tables, and how many have started serving without knowing specifically what security measures are optimal? But there are still more questions, endless ones...

What responsibility does a business owner have if someone is infected on their property? Does the air conditioner spread the virus? Should plastic cutlery be used? There are no answers right now.

Just chaos.

Uncertainty in states like Georgia has caused chefs to start reopening using their own research and the state health department's guidelines issued last Thursday as their only direction. Some of these rules are the same as you'll find in Hong Kong hospitality, only softened: 10 people are allowed in for every 500 square feet, tables with more than six people are banned, salad bars and buffets disappear, and everyone, both diners and staff, must wear a mask.

"There is no food at this time that is worthwhile to (jeopardize) the health of my people and the health of other people who walk into a restaurant," chef Hugh Acheson, Atlanta.

"I think people have opinions about what works for them and their customers," Georgia Restaurant Association executive director and restaurant owner Karen Bremer told NYT. "It's their opinion about how they're going to open."

Other restaurants don't feel ready for reopening. Even in Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom turned a blind eye to Governor Brian Kemp's declaration and called on the city's hospitality businesses not to open yet. 

"There is no food right now that is worthwhile to (jeopardize) the health of my people and the health of other people who walk into a restaurant," said Chef Hugh Acheson, who runs restaurants in Atlanta and Athens, GA.

Indeed, the quarantine has severely damaged the economy of the entire country, and the state of Georgia is no exception, with more than 1.1 million workers unemployed in just five weeks. Yet, in spite of those who were protesting the quarantine, the collapses in American hospitals, nor the unstoppable increase in contagion are something to be taken lightly. 

Maybe Kemp knows, or maybe it's just an intuition as small as a stomach ache. That's why he announced he was going to meet with other state leaders and also religious leaders in Georgia's capital to pray this Monday

Meanwhile, other states are following the lead of Georgia, Oklahoma, Alaska and South Carolina trying to revive their economy. But they ignore that it is not Wall Street that makes a country, but the work of the people. And there's no one who can work from a hospital bed.

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