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Working in Amsterdam in times of corona: are employees feeling safe?

By Scintilla Benevolo

Published Sat Oct 03 2020

Infection rates in the Netherlands continue to rise. This past week the country reported an average of 3,000 cases a day, and is expecting this number to rise to 5,000 in the week to come. On September 29th, Prime Minister Rutte and Health Minister De Jonge addressed this spike in cases and implemented a new set of restrictions, echoing the ones put in place at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. Restaurants and bars are now required to close at 10pm, they must respect a maximum capacity of 40 customers outside and 30 inside, and are not allowed to sit more than 4 people per table. Masks continue, however, not to be obligatory.

Employers working in the gastronomy sector are facing a unique trade-off between protecting their workers and maximising their profit. A strict approach to social distancing and hygiene rules risks driving clients away, especially younger ones who are ‘over the coronavirus situation’ and impatient to return to normality. On the other hand, with the use of masks being uncommon, severity regarding these rules is the only way to ensure some extent of safety for the employees. Which brings us to the topic of this week’s article: how are young workers feeling about their safety, and what is their take on the new regulations? Caitlin, originally from South Africa, has been living in Amsterdam for the past 2 years and has recently started working in a restaurant/bar in De Pijp. Before the new regulations were put in place, Caitlin and her co-workers did not have many means to protect their health: “We always tried to keep our distance from the customers, we were provided with hand sanitizer behind the bar and at the entrance, and cash payments were no longer allowed, but other than that not much was being done to ensure our full safety. I did feel like I was putting myself at risk by going to work.”

In the restaurant where Caitlin works it has been getting busier and busier over the past two weeks, with many people coming back from vacation and re-settling in the city. “We have been receiving a lot of reservations from larger groups of about 10 to 20 people”, she explains, “these groups are always the most troublesome because they stay longer, drink more, and at some point begin to disregard the rules”. Caitlin’s workplace has quite a social vibe: they play music and customers are given the opportunity to request songs. “It is therefore quite common for people to get drunk, and that is when they start getting up and walking around the restaurant. It has happened quite a few times that I had to be a bit more forceful with telling people to please keep their distance, but it’s difficult to talk to customers when they are intoxicated.”

For Caitlin the new regulations have been valuable: “I do feel that if these new regulations had not been passed, the risk of me or a colleague of mine getting infected would be very very high, because of the amount of people we get in the restaurant”. Reservations for larger groups will no longer be allowed, and with the restaurant closing at 10 p.m it is less likely for customers to drink a lot. Nevertheless, the impact on Caitlin’s wage is significant: “Since I am a student, I only have time to work on weekends. To compensate for the working hours I lose from the restaurant closing earlier I should be working during weekdays, which is however not compatible with my academic schedule.”

Caitlin is not the only one to be financially concerned by the new regulations. Zselyke, originally from Hungary, works in a restaurant in the city center and finds that many people in her surroundings -including herself- are rather more worried about their financial than health-related safety. “I’m working under a zero hour contract, meaning there is no obligation from my employer to ensure that I work a certain amount of hours per week. Many workers have either been fired or given a zero hour contract because restaurants like mine, which are heavily reliant on tourism, have suffered a huge economic loss and therefore cut on costs by reducing their spending in the workforce”. Many international colleagues of Zselyke were forced to return home because they failed to find enough work to cover their expenses. “The new regulations will make finding work even harder”, explains Zselyke. In Zselyke’s opinion, the government should have made the new restrictions more place-specific, instead of imposing the same guidelines for all bars and restaurants regardless of size and nature. “Closing at 10 p.m makes sense for bars and restaurants where people tend to drink more, but for a restaurant like mine the only difference this policy makes is that we employees now have reduced working hours”, explains Zselyke. She also believes that each restaurant and bar should have a maximum capacity specific to its size, it makes little sense for all places to have a limitation of 30 people: “The seafood restaurant in Spay gas a capacity of 400 people, but now they can only host a maximum of 30, although they definitely have the space to safely welcome more customers.”

What Zselyke, and many of us, have furthermore experienced is that the desperate need of making a profit felt by bars and restaurants has often driven many to ‘close an eye’, initiating a dangerous race to the bottom. “What I have experienced with my friends is that you will always find a place that is willing to bend the rules and allow you to sit at a table with more than 4 people, but once one place starts to bend the rules this incentivizes others to follow, since they wish to remain competitive and attractive”, explains Zselyke. The fault for this dangerous domino effect lies also, in my opinion, in us young people who are often tempted by places which are more ‘corona-relaxed’, since they offer an exciting taste of normality. But what I have also experienced is that in Amsterdam -where masks are not obligatory, where there was no lockdown and the crisis has been generally downplayed- I felt and acted more laid-back in regards to corona. I went to the bars which bend the rules, I did not feel too uncomfortable nor particularly in danger when I found myself in a crowded place. In Milan however -where masks are obligatory, where many people still act on the memory of those horrible 2.5 months of total lockdown- my attitude changed. I felt more aware of the risk of corona, of the social responsibility I have towards others. I felt safer wearing a mask and avoiding excessively crowded places. The point is: my attitude towards corona turned out to be heavily dependent on the narrative of the place in which I was living. So, perhaps, these new regulations are also valuable for the message they send, namely that corona still exists.

Sara, a Dutch student working at a cafe, expresses a similar thought: “Before these new measurements were implemented people acted like corona was over, but now they are more conscious again and understand that they need to be more considerate”. Sara herself admits that, as a worker, she had recently not been thinking much about her safety. “The first month after the reopening we were way stricter with the rules -keeping distance, wearing gloves and masks- but then everything got loosened”, she explains, “I have not been feeling worried about getting infected at work, although there is obviously a possibility of it happening”. In her experience, keeping distance with the other baristas behind the counter is more difficult than with the customers. “With time, my colleagues and I got more relaxed with keeping a safety distance, but especially in the past two weeks many have come in contact with infected people making the situation more troublesome”, says Sara. “The new regulations are a good idea, we need to keep following the measurements if we ever want to get out of this situation”.

Why the mask hate?

Making masks obligatory in closed spaces would, in my opinion, be an important step in terms of safety. Not only for workers, but for everyone. Yet, there seems to be a strong aversion to wearing masks. Barely anybody wears a mask, and the government has been really reluctant to make it obligatory. Sara believes this mask aversion could perhaps be explained by the Dutch ‘down to earth’, ‘don’t make such a fuss’ attitude. The government’s libertarian values furthermore make it difficult to pass a law making masks obligatory, since this may infringe upon people’s right to autonomy and self-governance. But regardless of where this ‘mask hate’ stems from, more and more people are starting to think that it’s time to make masks a legal requirement in closed spaces.

“The Dutch government should make masks obligatory, this way it will become normalized like it did in public transport”, explains Sara. In Caitlin’s opinion it’s also the government’s responsibility to better inform people on the seriousness of the virus. “It just does not seem like a big problem in people’s eyes”, explains Caitlin: a misbelief which obviously disincentivizes people from taking masks seriously. In Zselyke’s opinion there is also a lot of misinformation regarding the use of masks themselves: “At the start of the crisis, the Dutch had this whole idea that masks don't do anything, so they are just refusing to use it”. My take on the mask aversion is that it represents a dangerous interpretation of libertarianism. If the Dutch government really wishes to protect the autonomy of its citizens it should require them to wear masks. The autonomy you gain by being able to choose weather to wear a mask or not is rather insignificant, because the discomfort felt by wearing a piece of cloth over your mouth while walking into a restaurant or to the bathroom is rather insignificant. On the other hand, the autonomy you lose by living in a society where people don’t wear a mask -and therefore do not care about protecting others- is far from insignificant. People who are more endangered by the virus, just like people who are in close proximity to older or sick individuals, are losing their autonomy and right to go about living their life because they must constantly be preoccupied about protecting themselves from others. The Dutch government is sacrificing the autonomy of the people whose life circumstances make the virus a serious threat to safeguard the selfish and superficial ‘freedom’ of deciding whether you want to wear a mask for a few minutes or not.

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