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I'm Waiting Tables Without A Mask Again. Is It Too Soon?

Emily Baumgartner, left, and Luke Finley, second from left, join friends in a birthday toast at the Tiki Bar on Manhattan's Upper West Side Monday, May 17, 2021, in New York. Restaurants, shops, gyms and many other businesses in New York can go back to full occupancy if all patrons are inoculated. (Kathy Willens/AP)
Emily Baumgartner, left, and Luke Finley, second from left, join friends in a birthday toast at the Tiki Bar on Manhattan's Upper West Side Monday, May 17, 2021, in New York. Restaurants, shops, gyms and many other businesses in New York can go back to full occupancy if all patrons are inoculated. (Kathy Willens/AP)

I tilt my head slightly as a cue to my novice co-worker to step aside with me. We back into the small space between tables 40 and 50, creating passing room for four incoming guests being led to their table by our 19-year-old host, a woman who looks like Blake Lively and presents herself with more maturity than most of our 20- and 30-year-old colleagues.

With merely a week’s notice, Gov. Charlie Baker lifted most COVID-19 restrictions and restaurants on Nantucket, like ours, are quickly trying to re-adjust. But after a year of distancing, limiting, masking and sanitizing, are we ready?

On Memorial Day weekend’s stormy Saturday, for the first time in more than a year, I wait tables without a swatch of cloth covering my nose, mouth and voice. My mask had been a safeguard for guests from potentially contracting whatever I may have been carrying with me and protected me from revealing facial expressions. It also communicated to guests that as a business we were doing our part to keep them safe while they helped us pay our bills.

For me, the beginning of a restaurant shift has always carried nervous energy. In the pre-pandemic days, I’d worry about fumbling through my daily "addition" spiel — we never call them "specials" — or if I’d be able to turn my tables in time for the second and third seating. But now, as I stand aside for guests to pass, I wonder if I've made the correct decision to abandon my mask. I'm fully vaccinated, but is it too early?

If the gale-force winds and heavy rains hadn’t made outdoor dining impossible, we probably would have kept tables spaced apart and continued to haul furniture outside for dinners al fresco. But with nearly 200 guest reservations, all the tables are back in their pre-pandemic positions, as Gov. Baker's rolled-back restrictions allow. We had all been walking an extra six feet between tables since this ordeal began. Now the dining room seems impossibly crowded. How will we ever maneuver between those chairs? We're back to the old problem for restaurants on a summer resort island — all the revenue is made in five short months and space is limited.

... I wonder if I've made the correct decision to abandon my mask. I'm fully vaccinated, but is it too early?

My newer co-workers have never even seen this dining room configuration. Tables that haven’t existed since 2019 are back on the floorplan and that’s why I'm now tucked between two of them, making room for the guests to pass.

As we hover maskless below enormous rotating ceiling fans, a family of four already seated calls out to the group of four guests about to sit down at a neighboring table.

“Oh hello, you. How are you?”

It’s funny how something so mundane as noticing someone and calling out to them seems almost foreign.

The four seated guests stand up to shake hands or offer familiar pats on the shoulder to their friends. As I stand between tables 40 and 50 waiting for all eight guests and the hostess to move, I realize how uncommon these chance encounters have been during the pandemic.

'I forgot how loud it gets when the dining room is full,' my favorite co-worker adds.

For the past year, we had tables outside on three sides of a building and spaced out within the restaurant. The Hoffstetters dining on the waterfront would have no idea that their friends the Jones were dining at the same restaurant because they were tucked behind the hydrangeas on the courtyard side. But now, Saturday night in Nantucket’s restaurants can return to the who’s who parade of island celebrity.

Eventually, the guests settle into their seats and my colleague and I resume our trajectory past the arrangements of lilacs that aromatized the space until the kitchen shares its bounty of aromas with hints of butter-poached lobster or wood-grilled swordfish.

“Oh no. I didn’t realize ... This isn’t going to work.”

Three guests seated at a larger round table realize that part of the group isn't ready for the old normal. They need to vacate. One member of the party is a restauranteur who feels guilty about canceling last-minute on a busy Saturday night. She graciously buys a gift card and leaves a generous tip, while we send her home with a small gift from the kitchen.

Three guests seated at a larger round table realize that part of the group isn't ready for the old normal. They need to vacate.

Later, while sipping something spiritous we probably shouldn’t have in the wine room — waiting for the last tables to leave — my co-workers and I finally share thoughts about what the new, old normal is like.

“I never realized how loud my voice was projecting back at me through my mask," I say.

“I forgot how loud it gets when the dining room is full," my favorite co-worker adds.

“I love how beautiful the dining room is when all the tables are lined up just right and the candle flames flicker with go-time energy," says my manager.

There are three of us huddled in a closet-sized space surrounded by racks of wine and the musty smell that never seems to wash away during spring and fall cleaning. We take another sip from our wine glasses and smile. We smile because of the champagne. We smile about the 10,000 fewer steps we’ll have to take. We smile about our tableside voices now sounding like whispers. And we smile about no longer having mask-band pain behind our ears.

But mostly, we smile because we recognize, once again, what we’re doing.

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Rebecca Johnson Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Rebecca Johnson is a seasonaire who splits her time between Nantucket and Jackson Hole.

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