Coronavirus in N.Y.C. Coffee Is One Routine New Yorkers Won't Give Up

For many New Yorkers, the ritual of grabbing a daily coffee is one of the last luxuries they are holding on to while social distancing.

These days, visiting the shop has become an opportunity to maintain that sense of normalcy and socialize, if only briefly. “I’m a single mother, my child is 7 years old, so to just get out and have a little adult chitchat was really nice,” Ms. Berson, a lawyer, said.

“So much of what we love about the neighborhood is centered around having your barista and having your bartender know who you are and going back to the same place over and over again,” said Ms. Quanci, 29, who works as a stylist. “Right now everyone is scared and nervous. We’re trying our hardest to ensure that the institutions around us continue to exist.”

Leaving the house for the occasional coffee, she said, was both a privilege and a “calculated risk” she felt comfortable taking in order to help a local business.

Many coffee shop owners have found themselves choosing between keeping their stores open and risking the safety of their staff, or facing financial ruin and leaving their employees without work. The cafes that remain open only offer orders for takeout or delivery, and are often operating at reduced hours.

“Most people who live in our community say, ‘Thank you for being open when all the other stores are closed,’” Ms. Mikayelyan said. Customers have told her that “coming to your coffee shop makes me feel like everything is still OK.”

Other coffee shop employees described feeling that they weren’t just providing a service, but that their presence was symbolic.

“I know it’s not just the coffee,” said Sarah Madges, 29, a barista and manager at Swallow Cafe, which has three locations in Brooklyn. “Everyone who comes in, I can tell for the most part this is the one thing they do that day that contains a semblance of normalcy and provides comfort, even if that comfort comes through a mask and gloved hand. It’s the closest people can get to an organic human interaction.”

“But it’s also tough to keep on a brave face, especially when people don’t seem particularly grateful — not that they should be commending me,” Ms. Madges said. She described instances of customers regularly skipping tips, or becoming angry when a product they wanted was out of stock.

Her shop is running with a skeleton crew these days: Many of the baristas quit as the virus began to spread in the city, and only one employee works each shift, both as a safety precaution and out of necessity.

While Ms. Madges worries about her health and putting others at risk, “the backdrop is, this is what I have to do to pay rent,” she said. “Most days, I’m really trying to focus on how this is the nice part of people’s days.”

Some of the shop’s regulars are seeking the kind of therapeutic exchange that can accompany the transaction. “Half the customers look at you with watery eyes and genuinely want to know how your day is going, and they pause and take their time and it’s sweet,” Ms. Callihan said. “But when it’s the 75th person in a row, it’s like, I just want to make your latte.”

“Mostly, my motivation is to keep places alive,” he said. “It’s the same reason I’m getting takeout food and cocktails. It’s not so much that I need them, but it’s important I think to support these places. Otherwise we might as well live in the suburbs.”

Ms. Berson also sees her coffee outings as a way of preserving her slice of the city.

“I walk around the neighborhood and wonder what it’s going to look like in six months,” Ms. Berson said, “so I do my little piece, giving tips and throwing some of my money into their pot to help them get through this.”

“This is my fresh air,” she added. “Get your drink and sit on the bench and watch people walk by and feel like you’re part of humanity again.”


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *