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The Single Worst Thing You Can Say to a Restaurant Server Right Now

They really don't need to hear this from you.

One of the trickiest parts of the country reopening has been allowing dining to resume at restaurants. Research has pointed to the health benefits of wearing masks, but diners don't really have a choice but to take them off while they're eating. Plus, evidence has shown that the risk of spreading the virus increases the more time an infected person spends in one place, building up the "viral load." So, the natural instinct to enjoy a leisurely meal makes following the best coronavirus precautions a real challenge.

Still, in many states and cities, restaurants are opening their doors, welcoming diners back with a hefty amount of space between tables. In these places, it's crucial that new rules around safe and healthy behavior—not only in how diners interact with one another, but how they interact with their servers—are followed. And one question that has newly become something of a taboo in this strange new world is asking a server: "Can I borrow your pen?"

It seems like an innocuous question, and one you wouldn't have thought twice about prior to COVID-19. But in these strange times, asking for a pen at a restaurant—whether to sign the check or to jot a note to give to a fellow diner—is a breach of pandemic politeness.

"Bring your own pen to sign the check," says Dr. Charles Parks Richardson, CEO of KRS Global Biotechnology, Inc. "Most restaurants are not providing new pens for each table or sanitizing them after each use."

Not only does borrowing the pen of a server expose you to potentially dangerous bacteria, but it also returns the favor to them. They don't know when you last washed or disinfected your hands, or how cautious you've been, requiring them to then sanitize their pen just to be safe.

Concern about this even led Long Beach server Cheantay Jensen to headline her recent piece about restaurant work during the pandemic, "Don't touch my pen: What it's like being a server during COVID-19."

A bigger issue is that borrowing a pen requires the server to enter your personal space, putting them into close contact with you as they hand off the pen and then retrieve it when you've finished with it.

"You should limit your contact with waiters and waitresses," says Richardson. "Be courteous and polite as always, but reduce the small talk that doesn't pertain to the restaurant or your order." (Related: These Two States May Delay Indoor Dining Indefinitely.)

Don Woolf, a restaurant server and bartender in Chicago, outlined the challenges that servers have with avoiding close interaction with patrons in an open letter to Illinois Governor, J.B. Pritzker, and Chicago Mayor, Lori Lightfoot. He expressed his concerns about the lack of attention being paid to the safety of restaurant workers, pointing out that restaurant employees are required to wear a face-covering at all times, though customers may remove their face coverings when seated.

"Imagine a waitress serving a six-top," Woolf writes. "She leans in close to hear each customer's order. It's loud, and some of them yell into her ear. She's wearing a mask to protect them; they are wearing nothing to protect her. She leans in again and again throughout the evening, bringing drinks, clearing plates, taking credit cards, dropping off check presenters. Now imagine one of those customers was asymptomatic and shedding virus with each breath."

It's a frightening situation, full of risks to the server. By bringing your own pen to the meal, you can help the server to avoid at least one of these uncomfortable and hazardous interactions. For more, check out these 40 Ways to Stay Safe as Restaurants Reopen Near You.

Alex Daniel
A journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Read more about Alex
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