ON THE AVENUES: COVID tolls for thee — whatever, so hurry and get your ass back into this seat.

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“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
— John Donne

Wearing a mask doesn’t make you smart, it makes you a slave to oppression from draconian leaders. Wake up! #NoMasks
— guy on Twitter … or was it Facebook?

Put asses in seats, people!

We need to pack this place every night, or it’s gonna be curtains for us. What sort of event, concert or promotion can we plan to get this joint filled?

And people, we gotta upsell!

Once our customers are crammed together tight enough to get the fire marshal’s antennae quivering, they need to be so very damn happy that they spend an extra buck or three — have another shot, eat some fries, buy a t-shirt.

Why? Margins, dummy. They’re so tight that we’re already hand to mouth, and any extra bit helps — besides, there’ll be more tips for you.

Mind you, don’t do anything illegal.

But get some asses in seats, people!

There can be no doubt: COVID-19 has mercilessly exposed the majority of America’s socio-economic fault lines. While the restaurant and bar business has been devastated by containment measures, at least numerous overdue discussions finally are taking place about topics like sustainability, pay rates, pricing, supply chains and a host of other matters previously acknowledged but generally deferred substantively.

This being said, the single most jarring piece of evolving reality for those of us with careers in the restaurant and bar business has been the need to think differently about those asses in seats.

Our careers have been predicated on getting large crowds of people through the door, into the building (or out on the patio, into the garden, and so on). Asses in seats translate into profits, and of course those are required, even for the most reluctant of capitalists like me.

Yet there’s more to it than that. It’s not about the money alone. Rather, it’s also the energy, the vibe and the adrenalin. There’s a place for a quiet date by candlelight — and places where the pulsating scrum is the whole point, when you squeeze into that last available seat and let yourself be carried away by the proximity of other human beings.

Sure, there’ve always been potential customers scared off by a restaurant or bar operating at cheek to jowl capacity, but far more of us have tended toward judgments to the contrary, thinking to ourselves that a deserted eatery might not be very good to begin with.

As a server or slinger of beers, being in the weeds can be horrible; it’s been quite a while since my own time regularly spent bartending and waiting tables, yet the literal nightmares about not being able to catch up with orders still consistently plague me.

Conversely, there’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment when the staff just plain rocks a full house. It’s better than sports, if not sex.

Notwithstanding early bartending and package store gigs, I gravitated to the restaurant business later than most, at around the age of 30. What I came to like about it was the immediacy and relatively instant gratification. Serving folks on premise, you usually knew whether they enjoyed the experience or didn’t.

It wasn’t like a sales job where days or weeks might pass before you know the deal has been sealed. Of course, those were the times before poison pen anti-social media reviews and the all-purpose tomfoolery of the internet. Folks ordered food and drink, ate, drank and paid.

Usually you could tell if they were satisfied with it. They’d tip well, we’d thank each other, and most of the time we’d see them again.

Alas, it hasn’t been that simple for a good while, although one fact is crystal clear: for the foreseeable future, the marketing situation for the dine-in food and drink segment has been flipped on its head as humanity grapples with a novel virus.

These days we can put only 25%, 33% or 50% of your ass in a seat — spaced, masked, sanitized and hygienically sealed from the other half- or quarter-ass located socially distant from you.

It’s not the same, and I’m anguished, but in spite of this overwhelming feeling of loss, I’ve mourned long enough. Intellectual honesty demands principle, not blinders, whether it’s surveying local politics or fathoming a pandemic.

COVID is very real. It’s dangerous. It’s not a coin toss conspiracy touted by dimwitted dupes, and by the way, if you’re buying into that “viral” Plandemic video, unfriend me now, because I must question your sanity.

In my view, the economic reopening is coming too soon, whether in Indiana or Kentucky. As attorney/educator Joe Dunman remarked at Twitter, “This is all going to end up being the biggest disaster capitalism boondoggle in the history of disaster capitalism.”

Yes, it is my fervent wish to awaken tomorrow to a one-off, shot on the dark miracle, one that means we can go back to putting the entirety of your ass in a seat.

Except I’m not a fantasist.

Some sweet day we might get back to a semblance of the joy, pain, revelry and aching feet that characterized my life’s work as it worked it earlier in my life, right up until March of 2020.

It may well be the case that the food and drink business survives, but moving forward exactly the way we were?

Nope. That’s gone. Let’s bury it and create something new. It’s really the only choice, because whether we want to admit it or not, everyone isn’t coming “back” to the future.

The question: Who will?

I say this not because it pleases me. Facts are facts, and people are people; at times the facts elude the people, and at different times it’s the other way around.

Next week, subject to “distanced” terms of engagements, those restaurants in Indiana that so choose may reopen to the public. Kentucky follows shortly thereafter.

Some places will reopen. Others won’t, at least yet. Bars are supposed to be shuttered for a few more weeks in both Indiana and Kentucky, with the key consideration in these establishments being the presence of food … and the persistence of the prohibitionistic impulse in government.

(As an aside, for those bars in Indiana cannily contemplating the ploy of using their statutorily required frozen weenies, cup o’ soup, dehydrated milk and instant coffee as “food” in order to reopen, be aware that the Alcohol & Tobacco Commission already has publicly frowned on it.)

Given the limitations of on-premise patronage imposed by the state as a prerequisite to begin again, most observers are focusing on numbers: will restaurant economics even allow profitability if — yes — all those seats can’t be filled with asses?

I’ve been thinking about it differently. For me, it’s attitudinal as much as numerical. Next week, when the doors at certain eateries are unlocked, who will their customers likely be?

If we’re to believe the piquant graffiti adorning the blue state, red state anti-social media silos, two points of view already are selected, divided and entrenched.

One is made up of the clamorous COVID doubters, who haven’t believed the epidemiologists from the start — never conceded the need for social distancing, or stay-at-home orders, or mask-wearing as a simple courtesy to others, or hand washing. Simply stated, they can’t wait to pick up precisely where they left off on St. Patrick’s Day Eve.

The other camp is populated primarily by those who’ve chosen to trust modern medical science on COVID, accepting the need to flatten the curve now as well as expressing a willingness to modify future behaviors until testing, treatment and vaccinations make headway against COVID. They’ll be doing curbside pickup for quite some time to come.

In my view, these two pandemic-driven polar opposites are absolutely real. But I also see the existence of a middle ground. It might not be a majority, just a sizable minority: Americans who believe the science, are willing to be cautious, and also would like to ease their own asses back into regular seats at their favored haunts to enjoy a meal.

I think they’ll be waiting and watching to see how the reopening goes, and their perception of the outcome will go a long way toward determining the extent of their participation in the reopening.

As such, what’s in store?

If there exists one sizable group of potential diners who’ll refrain from returning to on-premise restaurants owing to an excess of caution, and another segment that might be willing to leave the house, although surely not in droves from the outset, can we assume that the bulk of patrons returning during the first few weeks of renewed operations will be those same COVID doubters who’ve been flashing their #NoMasks memes and protesting on behalf of their right to pretend that nothing ever happened?

And, if so, isn’t it perfectly reasonable — if horribly disconcerting — to assume that this contingent of COVID deniers taken to emitting primal screams of eternal hostility against matters of pandemic protocol, probably will be openly and aggressively manifesting their feelings as they reappear in restaurants?

(They’ve taken to saying “my body my choice,” an odd sentiment for folks who also are anti-abortionists, but okay. Americans always struggle with logic.) 

How conducive will the “it’s just the flu, libtard” crowd be to the restrictions embraced by restaurateurs in terms of capacity and spacing — not to mention masks and an absence of bar stools?

How cooperative will they be with modes of conduct they’ve spent the past months violently denouncing?

I can hear it loud and clear.

“Whaddya mean, you don’t want all 20 of our asses to come inside, be seated and spend money? Isn’t our money GOOD enough for you? Why are you letting the guvmint tell you what to do? It’s a plan-damn-demic, anyway. Now are you gonna seat us, or what?”

If rejected, will they smirk, sulk and slither away … to the other establishment down the street with fewer scruples about covidiocy, and a willingness (understandably, perhaps from financial desperation) to bend these recommendations?

In perfect candor, I hope I’m wrong. Unlike the mayor of New Albany, if I’m proven wrong then I’ll take my medicine and admit it publicly.

However, based on the current level of antebellum degradation, the likeliest outcome for the first weeks of restaurant reopening will be shrill scenes repeated in the upholstered booths of eateries and atop their tables, riotous tableaux eerily similar to the dunderheaded drone-bot triumphalism of Trump rallies, accompanied by a determined pushing of FOX news envelopes and a mass flaunting of whatever safety guidelines strike “down with science” diners as disposable.

By the way, the first party of 46 asses has arrived, and they’re waiting to be placed in seats. They’d like to bring their flags inside.

I almost forgot — we also heard from the McMichaels, and well, unfortunately they had to cancel their reservation. Something about an unexpected reckoning, but at least their asses have seats … in a courtroom somewhere.

Recent columns:

April 30: ON THE AVENUES: A week that was wooden like Pinocchio and dry as an unused water park or an unfilled glass.

April 23: ON THE AVENUES: Hemingway in a time of mercifully silent thunder.

April 16: ON THE AVENUES: Bunker mentalities, bunker abnormalities; bunker dreams, bunker screams.

April 9: ON THE AVENUES: #VoteEwwNoMatterWho, or when being realistic means being radical.

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