Checkpoint Chilli: Spaced out in the gourmet combat zone

Checkpoint Chilli: Spaced out in the gourmet combat zone
(Photo by elizabeth lies on Unsplash)

One man at the nearest table, over at the far wall, is shaking with what appears to be a nervous reaction to his pills, but in fact he’d just been told he couldn’t have a glass of wine with his Fillet au Poivre.


“Welcome to Joe’s Cafe, sir, madam. Let’s take your temperature.” The plastic temperature gun pointing at your brain makes you feel strangely dislocated, as if you started out heading for a restaurant for dinner and ended up in an urban hijacking, wondering whether you were about to lose your cellphone or your car, or both, or maybe your life. Which you might lose anyway if you’re allowed beyond this point, catch something from someone inside, and that’s it folks, see you in the afterlife. If there is one.

From behind your mask you can feel your blood pressure rise, the way that happens when the doctor has the rubbery tube thing strapped to your upper arm and, as she pumps, and the grip on your arm is tightened, your levels rise way higher than they were three minutes ago. Then you get diagnosed, you get the pills, and you hope it’s not gonna be all over before Christmas. 

The perils of going to the doctor. And restaurants.

The queue behind you now extends out of the gate and into the street. Strictly two metres apart, you wait for a table to become available. Through your misted up spectacles caused by the mask clamped to your nose and mouth you can make out, beyond the doorway to the restaurant, four or five tables, only two of which are occupied. The “table” seems, in fact, to be two tables pushed together, to ensure that the four people sitting around it are far enough apart. At one table, a woman cups her hand to her ear to make out what the person opposite her is saying. There is no wine on the table, only what appear to be glasses of water. One patron at the same table has a glass of Coke, which seems even sadder. Imagine having a Coke with your steak. Ah well. You consider turning back, climbing in the car and going back home, but you’ve got this far so… well, let’s see how this goes. Let’s give it a shot. (Maybe we’ll need one afterwards? If only there was one.)

A man two metres in front of me in the queue coughs profusely. People shuffle and look at one another, some shaking their heads and grumbling. We must walk through that hovering pool of droplets to get to the door. Will we even make it inside unscathed?

I’m wondering: this place usually has outside tables. The true experts say there’s a much lower chance of becoming infected if you’re in a breezy area. It’s cold, but at least we’ll all get home intact.

The (waiter? manager? nurse?) who took your party’s temperatures has now returned from the back of the queue and come back to “just ask you a few questions if you don’t mind”. You read, between the lines, that if you do mind, you’ll be going home right away. So you cooperate. But first you ask her why the party second from the end of the queue had turned and left after she spoke to them. “One of them had a temperature,” she replies. “So they all had to go home. We can’t take any chances with your health, sir.”

The questions turn out to be what you’d expect. Do you always wear a mask when not at home? Do you or anyone in your group have any comorbidities? Have you been ill lately? Has anyone in your family tested positive? And then…

Do you drink alcohol, sir?

“Well, I’d like to…”

How much?

“I think that’s my business.”

You must answer if you want to proceed further, sir. How much?

“Oh, a glass or two, you know,” you say, shuffling uncomfortably. You feel beady eyes on you from behind your neck. Somehow you’re back in a doctor’s waiting room being scrutinised by a GP whose job is to vet people for new insurance policies. They’re the used car salespeople of the medical profession, like car towing vultures at the side of the road. No one answers, “Well doc, I usually consume about half a bottle of Jack in the evening, but don’t worry, I can handle it.” But you can see in the doctor’s eyes: he knows it’s more than a glass or two. He can see right through you. He’s on to you. You feel like a teenager who’s been caught with a spliff in the school shed.

Now the restaurant nurse’s eyes are boring into your soul. She glances at her clipboard. Tell me, sir, have you ever been fined for drunk driving?

“No, I bloody have not. How very dare you. I wouldn’t dream of driving drunk.”

There’s no need to use that tone with me, sir, I’m only doing…

“And I don’t have a criminal record either. Now can we go in and have dinner or not?”

She reaches into her apron pocket. My eyes widen as I imagine she has a breathalyser in there and is going to say, “I need you to blow into this, sir.” But she pulls out a tissue and blows her nose instead. Everyone in the vicinity blanches. Did we touch the thermometer? How close was she to my face when she took my temperature? She must take many people’s temperatures every day. My mind screams: she’s probably the most likely of all of us to be infected. What are we doing here?

Then she scowls, turns on heel, and marches into the restaurant. Oh hell, this is it, you think. She’s gone to fetch the health gendarmes and you’re for it now. We look at each other. Should we make a run for it? But when she returns, she smiles just like an old-fashioned pre-lockdown restaurant hostess and ushers us in. Phew. Made it past Checkpoint Chilli.

“Where did they get that gauleiter?” someone in the party mutters as we sit down very far apart at a table big enough for 10 and start shouting at each other. There are three of us.

Matron suddenly appears at the foot of the bed, sorry, table. We know she’s matron because of the pale blue overall she is wearing, which matches her mask and surgical gloves. We all shuffle in our seats. “She looks like Nurse Ratched,” someone whispers. Matron curls her lip like Jessica Lange in American Horror Story and picks up the specials board.

While Nurse Ratched rattles off the dishes of the day, you survey the inmates at the other tables. They seem convivial enough, but it could be that they’ve all just been given their dulling medication. One man at the nearest table, over at the far wall, is shaking with what appears to be a nervous reaction to his pills, but in fact he’d just been told that he couldn’t have a glass of wine with his Fillet au Poivre.

Matron interrupts my reverie to ask what I’ve chosen for dinner. For a second I half expect to be handed the hospital menu of poached fish with soggy vegetables followed by jelly and custard and some sinister pills, but instead she repeats the specials for the day. There’s no printed menu, Matron explains, because if there were, everyone would contract whatever anyone else in the vicinity had and we’d all be dead before Christmas. Well, that’s my interpretation of what she said. In fact, she’d said, “It’s safer not to share printed menus.” There are only three choices for starters, main courses and desserts, and you had to focus and remember the choices because Matron needed to get the orders in and move on to the next ward, I mean table.

While waiting for our starters I get my iPhone out and find the Daily Maverick story in which academics and medical professionals give their collective, professional advice on how to behave to have the best chance of staying clear of this virus. I read out the nub of their argument to the table:

Do everything possible Outdoors;

Open Windows;

Wear Masks;

Keep at least one metre Distance (two metres is better) from people;

Avoid Crowded spaces;

Be Quick.

We pause, our eyes shifting from one to another and then around the room. The advice of the country’s leading professionals contradicts almost everything we are doing.

The windows are closed.

We can’t wear masks to eat.

We are more than a metre apart but so are lots of other people.

With the best will in the world, we cannot honestly argue that there is no crowding, given that there are 40 or so people in the room, even if we are spaced.

And restaurant culture runs contrary to speed, unless you’re in a fast-food joint, and if we were using those, we would have ordered for home delivery.

I read on:

The way the virus spreads is that when we cough, sneeze, talk, sing or simply breathe, we spray very small drops of moisture into the air; these are respiratory particles. If someone is infected, the live virus will be present in these particles. These particles in our breath can spray quite far (several metres). If there is poor ventilation and no air movement, they can hang around in the air. They can land on surfaces (where the virus may survive for some hours) and if you are close to someone they can land on your eyes, nose or mouth.”

We picture the invisible air above us, imagining that there are microscopic droplets of the infected saliva of 14 other people who have sat at this table in the past few hours. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in… Everyone suddenly stops talking and puts their masks on, hoping it’s not too late.

While these thoughts hover in the air, those people at the next table somehow seem to take on sinister form. They seem to be having similar thoughts, glancing at us with suspicion and whispering to one another. Reaching for their masks, putting their knives and forks down. I read on.

What is the impact of the three Ds? Distance: The further away you are from someone who is infected, the less likely you are to be infected by them or to breathe in particles they have breathed out…”

Soooooo … the best place to be right now would be…?

At home.

Dose: … The longer you are exposed to an infectious person, the more people you are exposed to, and the fewer barriers (like cloth masks) between you, the more likely you are to be exposed to the virus… 

So we should be? … 

Anywhere but here.

Dispersion: Because smaller particles hang around in the air, the movement of air makes a really big difference. The particles disperse quickly if you are outside, particularly if there is a breeze or wind. We also know that sunlight breaks down the virus. Small, enclosed spaces with closed windows are high risk, especially when they are crowded.”

“Matron? Maaaatron!?”

“What is it now?” She’s doing the Jessica Lange grin-mace again. “And I’m your waitress, by the way.”

“Could you move us to an outside table please?”

“But it’s freezing out there, you might catch cold…”

“We’ll take our chances.”

Are we ready to go back to our favourite restaurants? Should we be? That would seem to depend on how strongly you feel about surviving this thing. If this is the foreseeable future of dining out, my kitchen table is looking much more inviting right now. DM/TGIFood


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