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The Weekly Eater: Keeping restaurants safe is a shared responsibility

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Chef Chai Chaowasaree, middle, chats with bar patrons Dave D’anna, right, and Aaron Waller, all while using plastic protective face coverings available in the dining room on July 16 at Chef Chai restaurant in Kakaako.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Chef Chai Chaowasaree, middle, chats with bar patrons Dave D’anna, right, and Aaron Waller, all while using plastic protective face coverings available in the dining room on July 16 at Chef Chai restaurant in Kakaako.

The world has become divided between those who shrug off the coronavirus like it’s no big deal, and those who view every object, surface and person as a potential contaminant.

I am somewhere in between, not paranoid about becoming ill, but reasonably cautious when it comes to basic rules of hygiene that keep people healthy most of the time, not just during a pandemic.

I refrain from touching surfaces such as door handles and elevator buttons with my hands. I use elbows or wrists instead, and if I do use my hands, I wash up immediately.

Restaurants are part of my livelihood, and because I take these precautions daily I have no qualms eating in them almost every day. I’ve walked out of an establishment just once, because of overcrowding in a nonpoliced food hall.

My advice to those concerned about their health is to stick to home cooking, delivery or takeout, because you’re unlikely to enjoy the experience if you’re worried, and stress plays a role in immune- system breakdown.

In public, anything you fear can go wrong will go wrong. And not just on the restaurant end, but in our own behavior. We bear 50% of the responsibility for our own safety.

When I returned to dining rooms as soon as they reopened, on June 5, I had the best intentions. I was going to bring my own utensils. I wasn’t going to touch a menu unless I had hand sanitizer to clean up afterward, etc., etc. I ended up breaking every one of my “rules,” out of laziness and because I was in familiar, comfortable settings. I tried using a face shield, but it was impossible to enjoy a meal that way. I recently attended a dinner during which all guests were in face shields and many ended up shoveling food right into the plastic out of forgetfulness.

To convince diners they are safe, restaurateurs must be as hyper- vigilant as their most fastidious guests. I have seen staffers remove their masks when managers and owners were not present, and watched as gloveless cashiers handled money, then handed to-go bags to customers. Waiters still pick up water glasses by the rim to fill them, when they could easily make a pour without ever touching the glass.

Chefs need to offer more lower- priced appetizers to accommodate those who no longer want to share dishes. Zigu, for example, has introduced a varied appetizer platter for one, and New Shilawon now provides individually portioned banchan.

For family-style dining, more care must be taken to provide serving utensils for each person. And dishes meant to be shared should be portioned in the kitchen, by a person wearing clean gloves, of course.

That said, there will always be accidents in which people forget which is their serving spoon and which they’ve already used to eat. I’ve sipped from others’ water glasses by mistake. People need to be aware of their own responsibility for keeping others at their table safe.

We are not alone in having to develop new traditions to live indefinitely with a lethal virus. Japan’s Asahi Shimbun reported evidence of a “new normal” that occurred in eighth-century Nara, following a smallpox outbreak. Excavations uncovered large earthenware plates, favored before the outbreak, that were replaced by more hygienic, smaller, glazed dishes, resulting in the small-plate tradition seen in Japa­nese restaurants to this day.

Over at WePrescribe.com, a group of doctors is aiming to make it safer for businesses to open and guests to trust businesses.

In addition to providing the public with telemedicine services, the group provides COVID screenings for businesses whose employees must check-in online daily to answer a questionnaire. Doctors review information and can provide same-day testing for those at risk.

“Most businesses are not able to handle this kind of screening themselves,” said WePrescribe co-founder Cedric Strong, an internal medicine specialist and chief of medicine at Pali Momi Medical Center. “Opening our economy depends on trust, and one way we thought we could help was to provide this service.”

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

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