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Chain Restaurants Have Always Been the Front Line in the COVID Wars

Why so much pandemic drama revolves around the Cheesecake Factory

During summer 2020, I wrote a piece titled “Why We’ll Risk It All for the Cheesecake Factory.” It was three months into the pandemic, and after the initial lockdown phase, red and blue states were sharply diverging on their approach to COVID-19. In Texas, for example, many new cases traced back to bars and restaurants that had continued to allow indoor dining, with no enforcement on masks or social distancing. Among these was the Cheesecake Factory, which seemed symbolic of the American urge to enjoy casual dining at any cost, including death.

Fast-forward to the end of 2021, and people are getting themselves arrested at the Cheesecake Factory in the Queens Center mall in New York. In addition to six charged with criminal trespass there, four more wound up in police custody after an incident at the Applebee’s restaurant in the same mall. Both establishments can legally serve indoors right now — provided that customers show proof of vaccination, which these would-be diners refused to do. They also ignored the staff’s request that they leave the property. All this was done in hopes of becoming martyrs for the anti-vaxxer cause, patriotic victims of a society gone mad with fear and oppression.    

It’s maddening that in a moment when the country is beset with a number of dystopian threats (unchecked climate change, assaults on abortion and voting access, housing shortages, the expansion of the surveillance state and, oh yeah, the resurgent deadly pandemic), this group is politically motivated by their “right” to eat eggroll samplers and spinach dip in a crowded venue where they could easily contract a horrible disease they have no protection against. But it also can’t be a surprise. This is all they have, and it’s what the fight has always been about: forcing showdowns with a service industry that dares to act in the name of overall public health.

Might be worth saying here that the Cheesecake Factory doesn’t set COVID-19 policy. They only follow guidelines from local and state authorities, which, of course, vary wildly across the nation. On some level, the virus deniers and anti-vaxxers know this, and that no histrionic arguments will persuade an overworked restaurant host or manager to violate the rules it is now their job to enforce. But only by treating the Cheesecake Factory and Applebee’s as organs of a tyrannical government can these extremists draw the outlandish parallels they prefer — to Jim Crow laws or even the Holocaust. And the arrests, which wouldn’t have occurred were they demonstrating at a city hall or capitol building, set up the commentators on their side to rage about how the police mistreat peaceful protesters while letting Black Lives Matter and “antifa” do whatever they want. (Note: Cops everywhere have met BLM with brutal violence).

While the scenes in New York were pathetic to those in favor of the vaccine mandate, they shed light on how the other half conceptualizes this battle. It has less to do with the particular onus of entering certain spaces — whether it’s paperwork or a face covering — than indignation that those spaces aren’t the way they used to be, and aren’t going back to business as usual. 

You see this same attitude in Rep. Jim Jordan’s nonsensical claim that “real America is done with COVID,” or columnist Bethany S. Mandel’s demand that the magazine Highlights stop depicting children with masks on, or the recent ghoulish piece in The Atlantic titled “Where I Live, No One Cares About COVID.” 

Well, then, what’s the problem? Sounds like you can walk around like it’s 2019 and not come across a single reminder of what’s going on — but it’s still not good enough, because elsewhere, in the elite coastal cities, other people you don’t know or interact with are taking basic precautions to stay safe. This does nothing to undermine your region’s laissez-faire approach to epidemiology, just as my washing my hands has no effect on whether you wash yours, yet you take any acknowledgement of continued danger as a direct insult.

By the same token, Applebee’s requiring proof of vaccination at the door doesn’t negate your freedom to forgo life-saving medicine, and it’s hardly more restrictive than asking that customers wear clothes. The real objection is that it’s new, something additional that one never had to consider before — and this becomes an intolerable stain on the familiar franchise, the comforting, casual, infinite mediocrity of every American chain eatery. Anti-vaxxers aren’t trying to force their way into upscale bistros or wine bars, since it’s understood that these establishments already had higher barriers of etiquette, and besides, it’s at the downmarket restaurants where they believe their status entitles them to harangue and scold the employees.

So, here we are at the next stage in a long war. First they’re protesting the lockdowns for keeping the Cheesecake Factory closed. Then they eat in the Cheesecake Factory to defy health experts and own the libs. Then they want to “shut down” the Cheesecake Factory — i.e., return to the state of affairs that pissed them off at the beginning of the pandemic — for abiding by municipal law. The strategies and demands may change, but the backdrop stays the same. Despite all the talking points, there’s just one grievance on the menu: I liked this better before.