I bought lunch from the café down the street today. It’s something I’ve been doing over the past two weeks as I’ve returned to my own shop to begin the process of getting it ready for re-opening. I’ve eaten more carry-out meals in these past two weeks than I have in the past year.

And I don’t hate it, but I’m uneasy about it. Uncomfortable. I’m torn between wanting to support my fellow food workers so they’ll still have jobs on the other side of this pandemic, and wanting everyone to go home and be safe. But I know they can’t go home, they need to earn a living, and so I order lunch and add a big tip and give thanks that we are all still healthy.

Most of the businesses that line the three-block downtown of my community are family-owned. I want them to survive. I want us all to survive. The clothing boutiques and the three (!) barbers, the two day spas and the hair salon. The lovely shop with all the domestic accouterments: table linens and sofa pillows and candles and gifts. The new zero-waste shop that sells bulk laundry detergent and hand soap. The bridal shop across the street from my coffee bar, with its rose garden courtyard and abundance of architectural gingerbread. The music studio that offers lessons and recording sessions to kids and features a tiny performance stage for their recitals.

And the three cafés: two that are open, one for curbside carry-out, the other with patio dining that just started this week, and us.

I’m nervous for them. I’m nervous for us all.

As I clean and re-organize my shop, as I design new menus and re-arrange tables to accommodate physical distancing, I wonder if any of this is going to work. Most people don’t understand the food business and its tiny margins; they see only that the price of a breakfast burrito has gone up. They don’t realize their favorite café is operating at a loss right now, if it’s operating at all, that places designed to break even at full capacity cannot manage for long at 50%, let alone curbside and carry-out only.

It’s not that it’s the patron’s business to know these things. It’s that it’s in their interest to know,  if only so they can learn to fry an egg now that an entire industry they’ve long taken for granted turns out to be so fragile that a few weeks of closure has brought it to its knees.

And so I re-position the furniture and re-arrange displays and find myself enjoying the patron-free space perhaps a little too much. Tables don’t demand anything of me, chairs don’t resist the new protocol. They also don’t pay my salary. So like all of my food business compatriots, I’m steeling myself for what comes next. We’re all learning to live with the uncertainty, some of us doing better with it than others, knowing it was always uncertain, that we were all just pretending it was otherwise.

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