Don’t touch my pen: What it’s like being a server during COVID-19

I’m a Long Beach reporter by day and, by night, a server who works at a seafood restaurant in Newport Beach. Most of what I’ve read and heard about the coronavirus in the news hasn’t really followed me to my night job, though lately, it’s gotten interesting.

In the last couple of weeks, our restaurant has implemented a few safety protocols, most of which involved managers reminding us of proper handwashing procedures—hot water, sing Happy Birthday twice—and other CDC prevention tips we’re all pretty aware of at this point: don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth; cover your sneeze or cough with a tissue, then throw it away; don’t come into work if you’re sick.

The only new thing, really, is that now our bussers are wiping down tables with disinfectant wipes in addition to the sanitation cloths we traditionally use.

“It’s to be double safe,” my manager, Megan McGroty said.

But, it’s the tone of our customers that has shifted.

Just this past weekend, in a moment of curiosity, one of my patrons asked if I was concerned about the outbreak. When I told her I wasn’t, she responded similarly. Still, when it came time to sign her check, she declined to use my pen saying she didn’t “want to touch it.”

In the wake of all the new outbreaks so close to home—Long Beach now included—some people are, understandably, frightened. My mother told me she’s afraid to leave the house.

I was talking to one of my coworkers, Maria Guelde, who works at the restaurant twice as often as I do. She hasn’t noticed people refusing to touch things, but she says guests bring up the virus all the time.

“I get like two regulars asking me about it every shift,” she said. “It’s more so them trying to gauge if anybody else is freaking out or if everyone is staying calm. I just tell them everything that I keep hearing, which is that you’re more likely to die from the regular flu than coronavirus, so I’m not going to freak out until the CDC tells me to freak out.”

But Guelde is also the type of person who’s always prepared for anything. She keeps a bottle of her handmade hand sanitizer in her apron. It’s 91% alcohol. She’s quite proud of it.

News has always been fuel for conversation at the restaurant. As media coverage of the virus dominates every news outlet in the country, it has also dominated dinner conversation. When I’m not being directly asked about it by my patrons, I hear the chatter in the dining room. And it’s a lot of chatter because, so far, the coronavirus hasn’t slowed business; people might be concerned, but they’re not scared enough to start cooking.

The clientele who come into our restaurant are the kind of folks who don’t bat an eye at a $100 dinner for two, who say things to me like “I’ve been coming here since before you were born.” It’s true, many of them have.

So yes, our customers are the sort of people who are generally older, who have more reason to be concerned about their health, but they’re also the people who are more likely to keep up with the news. More specifically, evening television news.

Last night I decided to check out the evening newscast. That was a mistake. Every single story, aside from one about a stabbing, was about COVID-19. New outbreaks, updates on current outbreaks, schools shutting down due to concerns of outbreaks, status with Italy’s outbreaks, a restaurant that has started taking temperatures before permitting customers to dine to prevent outbreaks.

It’s relentless and distressing. I’m not blaming the news for doing their job, but I’m also not condemning people for being worried.

Am I afraid? No, I’m not. But, I am making an effort to hold in my coughs and sneezes until I’m safely out of the dining room—mostly so I don’t make my customers feel uncomfortable.

Still, I notice now that every time I sing “Happy Birthday” to one of my celebrating patrons, I can’t help but think of soap and water.

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Cheantay Jensen is an editorial intern who covers art and culture for the Hi-lo section of the Long Beach Post.
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