On Sunday, after a week of bitter cold and extreme weather, Mother Nature decided to remind us all why we live in Dallas. The sun came out, temperatures warmed to 70 degrees, and people across the city treated their cabin fever with a hefty dose of sunshine. In my case, that meant dining out on a patio for the first time in nearly a year.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dallas dining rooms have been especially fraught places over these last 11 months. While trying to parse out the ethics of potentially putting other people at risk and concerns about my own health, it was immediately clear to me last March that eating at a restaurant — and feeling comfortable while doing it — was not an option during the pandemic. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Dining indoors could soon be a possibility for even the most cautious once again, but not without a dramatic reduction in the state’s infection rate and easily accessible vaccines.
With the ice melted and a sense of stir-craziness that could only be cured with a strong drink, I headed to Thunderbird Station in Deep Ellum on Sunday. Knowing that the COVID-19 pandemic is still a very real thing — hundreds of Dallasites were diagnosed with the virus even during Winter Storm Uri — a patio was the only option for me. Thunderbird Station’s was especially appealing, with its large and very distanced tables, frozen cocktails, and a legitimately transcendental fried bologna sandwich that might be worth committing several felonies over.
Whatever sense of apprehension I had about eating in public for the first time in nearly a year melted away as soon as I sat down at one of the bench-style tables. Knowing that I had one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine coursing through my veins and that Dallas County’s new cases of the virus have finally been on the decline in recent weeks, I finally felt comfortable sitting outside to eat.
With blue skies and an artfully arranged selection of oil barrels as a backdrop, I ordered fried pork skins that arrived at the table still crackling from the hot grease, and a frozen cocktail called the the Peel Out, a mix of vanilla, vodka, and orange juice that tasted just like the frozen orange sherbet Push Pops I used to scarf by the box as a kid.
In my enthusiasm, after more than a year without eating in a restaurant, I ordered too much food for myself and a friend. Alongside those crispy, sizzling pork rinds came chips and a trio of dips — dill pickle, French onion, and pinto bean — then a towering fried bologna sandwich smothered in cheese, grilled onions, and special sauce. And, of course, there were more cocktails.
As I sat at the table — at least 10 feet away from the handful of other people sitting outside on Thunderbird’s large patio — it was almost impossible to keep the tears from flowing. After nearly a year outside of restaurants, I was reminded of exactly what we’d all lost during the relentless hellscape that was 2020. Amid all the death and fear and political chaos, I had forgotten exactly how important sharing a meal with friends and family is.
On March 16 of last year, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson ordered dining rooms across the city to close their doors as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the city. It was a time wracked with uncertainty and fear, both in terms of our own personal health and what might come next in this new world where masks were required to leave our homes, socializing with friends could prove deadly, and eating dinner at a restaurant could pose a bonafide public health risk.
When that shutdown happened, none of us could have predicted what would come next. Even though Gov. Greg Abbott allowed dining rooms to open at 25 percent capacity on May 1, the dining world was now fundamentally different. For folks who had genuine concerns about the pandemic, there was a lot of fear associated with the idea of entering into a restaurant. Would I get sick? Would I get my family sick? Would I transmit the virus to a cook or server, who probably doesn’t have health insurance or paid time off?
That fear has not subsided entirely. Every time my server came to the table, I tried to remember to pull my mask over my nose and mouth, even if the latter was stuffed with fried bologna and bean dip. I sanitized my hands after touching pretty much any surface. Using a public bathroom, even one as clean as Thunderbird’s, was out of the question entirely. But for the first time in what felt like an eternity, something felt normal.
Even though I had to scan a QR code and view it on my phone, it felt really nice to leisurely browse through the menu, scanning all the cocktail options and debating with my best friend over how many appetizers is appropriate for two people to order. It felt really good to sip a drink that was finally, blessedly, mixed by an actual bartender while George Jones blared from the stereo and my skin soaked up Vitamin D from the sun.
Nothing in this last year has been normal. From the time that the pandemic began in earnest to this week, when millions of people across the state lost access to power and clean water, there has been an extreme amount of suffering. Even for people who have still not contracted the virus or lost loved ones, there is no way to reclaim the time we have lost.
But what we can do, finally, is be a little bit hopeful. Over the past week, even the most cynical person must have had a little bit of their faith in humanity restored as people banded together in truly awful conditions to feed and offer warm shelter to their neighbors. After a week of weather-related shutdowns, the area’s COVID-19 vaccination programs are back in action, dispensing thousands of doses of a shot that provides more than 94 percent protection against this virus each week. In Dallas County, hospital occupancy has declined such that restaurants can reopen their doors for indoor dining at 75 percent.
We are not there yet. Researchers are still not sure exactly how effective the vaccine is at preventing people from spreading the virus. As someone who has only received one of the two required doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, dining indoors is not something I am ready to contemplate just yet. Plenty of establishments are not following the rules as carefully as they should be. In an extreme display of irony, the patio at one Deep Ellum bar that shall remain unnamed boasted a huge crowd of people on Sunday afternoon, all gathered together above a banner that encouraged drinkers to come “social distance with a view.”
For actual “normalcy” to return, Texans are going to have to do a little bit better in these coming months than we have done before. We’ve got to wear our masks and stay out of crowded bars and work tirelessly to get as much of the population vaccinated as possible. Perhaps most importantly, we have to prioritize providing access to the COVID-19 vaccine for people that work in the hospitality industry in order for everyone to comfortably, safely participate in indoor dining again.
Even though this country has bungled its response to the pandemic from the jump, federal leadership now finally recognizes that restaurant workers are essential. If we don’t get servers and cooks and bussers vaccinated in a timely manner, these experiences that we have missed so sorely will take even longer to come back. And while dining outdoors is arguably the safest way to eat a meal outside of our homes, it is not without its risks. We have an obligation to make sure that our return to restaurants is as cautious and considerate as possible — wearing masks, staying distant, and tipping heavily.
It remains unclear when we will be able to return to pre-pandemic “normal,” or if that is even possible. Despite a good experience on the patio at Thunderbird Station, I don’t think I’m quite ready for outdoor dining to be part of my regular eating rotation just yet. But I have seen light at the end of the tunnel, and after a year that was — to say the very least — hellish, there is comfort in knowing that the time-honored tradition of drinking on a patio is something that will soon be part of normal life again.