Think twice before stepping out
Strictly speaking, there is nothing truly essential about dining in at restaurants, or shopping, or other self-care activities like haircuts and waxes. They might perhaps be important for mental health — everyone could use a little pick-me-up in times like these — but they are not essential to life. With the relaxation of restrictions and the cautious reopening of these businesses, consumers are now able to step out for these “nonessential” creature comforts, albeit with a few precautions, but at what risk?
These establishments now operate with minimal staff, fewer seating options, and fewer number of maximum customers allowed at a time. It’s the so-called “new normal,” which allows businesses to try to recoup their losses from the last few months, while maintaining some degree of physical distancing. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to caution that availing of such services still put both clients and workers at risk: on a scale of “lowest” to “highest” risk, on-site dining at restaurants and bars, even with spacing at least six feet apart, constitutes “even more” risk. Activities like removing masks for eating make the risk higher, not to mention that poor circulation, hand-to-hand contact through the exchange of food items, menus, and money, continue to put persons at risk.
On the part of businesses and workers, why risk it? The Philippine Statistics Authority announced last month that around 7.3 million Filipinos are jobless, said to be the highest unemployment rate on record. Clearly, having a job at this time is nothing to sniff at, and employees must weigh the risks of contracting and bringing home an infection versus termination. Basically, the best protection against the coronavirus is staying home, but many don’t have that option.
As responsible customers who would like to support local businesses, we need to recognize the risks faced by these vulnerable workers, most of whom need, rather than want, to go back to work. Unlike previously-hailed “essential” professions, those who risk going to work in the service industry now are doing it for our entertainment and well-being, and they do not benefit from widespread praise and donations of food and personal protective equipment, not to mention campaigns for hazard pay. Servers and other staff risk getting infected at work, both from customers and co-workers. Not all businesses are able to screen customers for fever, symptoms, or infection history. Not all businesses are equipped to adequately train their staff on sanitation, or to purchase devices, like air filters, aimed at reducing infection. Not all businesses can shoulder the costs should a worker become infected and hospitalized. While fearing transmission, workers must also deal with uncooperative customers who may refuse to wear masks, or who may ask the establishments to relax their policies on seating and capacity, putting staff in an uncomfortable position of having to turn customers — and money — away.
How do we help? The answers are basic, but as businesses reopen, perhaps people need a little reminding. Stay home when possible. Even ordering deliveries is safer, for both parties, compared to dining inside. Despite what some anti-science pedants might say, continue to wear masks appropriately, covering both the nose and mouth. Business owners are responsible for maintaining physical barriers, disinfection strategies, good ventilation, and minimal hand-to-hand contact, and it is the consumers’ responsibility to comply.
To continue to observe these precautions is not buying into the “pasaway” narrative: These businesses and those who support them are not to bear the blame for the surging number of positive coronavirus cases that we have seen over the last weeks, as yesterday’s Inquirer editorial explains in detail. However, as everyone adjusts to the new paradigm of doing business and resuscitating flagging industries, extra care should be taken to look out for workers in the service industry. Let’s not be complacent. The fact that we can now go out more freely doesn’t mean we should.
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