In his masterful story of the 1918 flu pandemic, “The Great Influenza,” presciently released in 2005, the popular historian John M. Barry tells a story eerily familiar to us as we live through the current pandemic. A century ago, churches, theaters and schools were closed. Gauze masks became widely used, though in some cities more than others. Corpses piled up beyond the means to dispose of them. Medical research science, not nearly as primitive as one might expect, desperately sought a vaccine and came close, charting the way for future breakthroughs.
But one aspect of the current crisis is nowhere found in Barry’s powerful account: There is no reference to restaurant closings or even mention of restaurants at all. Yet in New York today, the question of when and how to reopen the economy seems to center on restaurants. Daily updates take center stage in local news — with the woes of owners highlighted. This is not just a story about how close we are to returning to “normal.” Its prominence reflects a major economic change in recent decades. As limited indoor dining returns to the city, restaurants can no longer be understood as the luxury it once was but, rather, as both a prerequisite for a successful economic recovery and an indicator that one is underway.
Federal Labor Department data tells the story of restaurant dining moving to center stage in the economy. In 1910, those involved in preparing food outside the home comprised but 0.8% of employment. By 2000, that figure had grown to 3.7%, or from 323,000 to 4.7 million persons. The trend has continued. In 2019, there were 2.1 million waiters and waitresses alone. No New Yorker will be surprised to learn that there are far more restaurant employees here than in any other U.S. metropolitan area: 157,000 servers earning a median wage of $17 an hour. That’s about 55,000 more than Los Angeles, the city in second place.
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