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It Took A Pandemic to Get People To Stop Touching Us: How COVID-19 Has Impacted Sexual Harassment in The Restaurant Industry

Like much else in the world right now, the restaurant industry is going through remarkable changes amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. When I am not writing, I work in a California restaurant and bar. Everything from how we take orders to how we interact with customers is completely different. Some of these changes are incredibly difficult, while others are actually an improvement. One of the latter changes is how sexual harassment in the industry, and how we handle it, is evolving.

How Things Were Before

Every restaurant is different, and certainly, no experience is universal, but I think it’s safe to say that most women who work in the restaurant industry have experienced some form of sexual harassment. For me, this is compounded by the fact that I work mostly in the bar. Alcohol definitely seems to spur on the behavior of those prone to sexually harassing the young women serving them.

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t like to be touched, pretty much ever, and especially not by strangers. This is by far the most difficult part of working in the restaurant industry. Navigating people, usually intoxicated men, touching me, often inappropriately or with an accompanying sexual remark, while maintaining the facade of politeness required by the nature of the work is incredibly difficult. This is experience is not unique to me just because I am more sensitive than most to physical touch. Pretty much no one likes random people in their personal space, especially in a sexual way, while they work.

What It’s Like Now

COVID-19 has changed pretty much all of that. Now, we remain inside the restaurant, making drinks and taking orders, while customers have to stay outside, blocked by tables. By nature of this arrangement, there is minimal opportunity for any kind of physical sexual harassment. It’s beautiful, but unfortunately quite temporary.

It’s also not foolproof. Physical distance does little to curb the occasional intoxicating customer from hitting on us with sexual remarks, but this is manageable. Words are just words, and that just creates the opportunity for creative comebacks.

Permission to Distance

However, we do have to go outside from time to time, to take out the trash or refill the ice. A few weeks ago, one of my coworkers went outside to accomplish some such task. She encountered one of our most notorious customers, one whose tendencies are well known around the bar. He got a little too close for comfort, and she yelled at him. He later tracked down our manager, who came in to have a chat with all of us.

I was a little worried my coworker was going to get in trouble for getting feisty with a customer. Instead, our boss informed us all that we should a hard line with harassing customers in the future. He declared that he doesn’t want customers touching us at all anymore, sexual or otherwise, and we have full permission to lay down the law.

Where We Go From Here

Sure, it took a global pandemic to achieve this basic right to personal space. This policy will also likely be much harder to enforce as we gradually reopen and customers are allowed in the bar again. People always seem to find a way to be gross, and it’s not feasible to have a bar that no one is allowed inside once the threat of illness has faded. Eventually, we will have to handle customers in a closer capacity. With any luck, however, the new attitudes regarding touching will survive. Hopefully, this pandemic will be the catalyst that allows us all to stand up for ourselves and keep sexual harassment at bay.