Being in the social gathering business over the last 20 months has been tumultuous, to say the least: the initial existential concerns, then laying off most of your employees, and now the pent-up demand we are experiencing, given humanity’s innate social animal instinct. Was it unbridled, overzealous enthusiasm to see live music in Houston a few weeks ago that led to the tragic stampeding, crushing, and suffocating of fellow concert-goers? Has going from full-court defense to survive to full-court offense with half a team—given that 50% of the hospitality labor force has moved on (e.g., waiters, bartenders, security officers, ticket takers)—led to irresponsible decision-making, topped with a post-Trumpian disregard for civility?
It’s not clear when our world will get back to normal: will it ever? Our colliding industries of hospitality, nightlife, and entertainment have been forever altered. After 9/11, airport security was heightened, but the level of scrutiny has remained high for 20 years now. Those without TSA precheck still take off their shoes before flying. (I’ve lost several corkscrews over the years.) How long will we be checking vaccine status for admission to our clubs and our restaurants? How about staff mask-wearing? Will we be allowed to on-board without asking health questions? Do we do Covid rapid tests or antibody tests for our staff weekly or monthly? How long is this going to last—through 2022, longer? Certainly, there are psychological fears, concerns and natural questions about the strangers you’re breaking bread with as they sit next to you in an indoor restaurant. This is also now clearly creating a difference between the older and more at-risk demographic and a younger, seemingly invincible one.
As these safety issues collide with issues of personal freedom, we continue to march forward the best we can. At City Winery, we are taking both the PT Barnum strategy of the “show must go on” with Dr. Fauci’s “safety first.” We need to rebuild the ecosystem of live music, getting artists back to work, filling the rooms, and creating the nightly experience of selling food and beverage with great service. We need to push our dinners back into indoor dining, accommodating private parties that can mingle for the holidays, and conferences that can go back to welcoming their participants in one room. And we need to do all of the above while keeping our customers and our staff healthy. While not every customer or employee is over the moon about the constant reminders of putting on their masks, showing the vax cards, and washing their hands, it needs to become a natural part of our job in hospitality. Like the exit signs, emergency lights, sprinkler systems, security systems, and other things we have installed as protocols of safety, health systems now are the next bastion of making people at ease and comforted by hospitality. This has nothing to do with politics: rather it has everything to do with creating the right atmosphere for people to enjoy a night out of great food, great wine, great music, gathering with friends, and reducing the stress of the world. You’re a guest in our home, we want to make you feel cozy—that is the definition of hospitality. And if a simple rapid antigen test greets you at the door, welcome to the 21st century of hospitality.
So as we move into the second cold winter of the pandemic, with yet another wave of infections hitting Europe, hospitalization rates rising in various parts in the US, and Covid taking a toll on developing nations, what are we doing? We are keeping our eye on the target of summer 2022, feeling confident that this is going to be effectively “over” by then. What that statement really means is, in the industrialized world, we will have passed the threshold of a vaccinated public to contain the pandemic, like the flu. Employment issues, inflation, and supply chain challenges will clarify and normalize. While Covid may remain politically distracting and divisive, our job by the summer of 2022 will be to focus on providing great experiences for people to keep their minds off the ongoing challenges in the world: to continue cranking out great wine, yummy food, and engaging concerts; to bring people together safely for weddings, birthday parties, and corporate events; to indulge people’s senses and try and create magical social gatherings to distract them from what is really happening in the world.