SHOP NEW MERCH SHOP NEW MERCH
April 13, 2021
America Dissected
Dining in...a pandemic w/ Corby Kummer and Chef Amanda Cohen

In This Episode

Abdul talks reflects on the little joys the pandemic robbed from us–and the big impact they have on the businesses that provide them. Then he talks to Corby Kummer, food critic and Executive Director of the Aspen Institute Food & Society Program and Chef Amanda Cohen, Chef & Owner of Dirt Candy in New York City about their new Safety First restaurant COVID-19 safety protocols.

 

Transcript

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Cases continue to climb nationwide, with major surges in a few states, as B117, the U.K. variant, emerges as THE dominant variant of the virus in the United States. Deaths are also increasing in several states and Washington, D.C. The Biden administration announces that all adults age 16 and older will be eligible for vaccines by April 19th. Meanwhile, though, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine deployment hits a major hurdle as they slashed their allocations by 86%, delaying America’s sprint toward herd immunity. This is America Dissected. I’m your host. Dr. Abdul El-Sayed.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I love restaurants. I love the experience of going to a place that I’ve wanted to try, reviewing the menu and thinking about what my perfect meal will be. I love that moment you put that first bite in your mouth—all the flavors hit you in this perfectly timed choreography. I also love going to a usual spot for that go-to sandwich or comfort meal. I love getting to know the servers and the chefs, taking that first bite and knowing exactly what combination of flavors to expect. I love watching all the other folks, too, as they enjoy their food and their company, and make conversation with a dinner partner. But most of all, I love giving restaurant tips for folks who are coming to Michigan for the first time. If you’re in Detroit, get a sandwich at Stache International, or an aged ribeye at Prime and Proper, or a slice of plain cheese at Supino’s or Grandma Bob’s, fried chicken at Kuzzo’s, or Tajina at Safran De Twah. Finish it off with pastries at Warda Patisserie or Ochre Bakery, or you got to try the pie at Sister Pie. There’s nothing like the Arabic food in Dearborn, whether it’s at [?Manushat King’s], a Lebanese breakfast at Al Tayeb, some grilled meats at Dearborne Meat Market or the full platter at Al Ameer. And to finish it off, you’ve got to get a scoop of pistachio ice cream at Shatila or try the Kanafeh cheesecake at Labon Sweets. And if you’re coming my way to Ann Arbor or Ypsi, go ahead on to Bellflower for their oyster po-boy, or Maize and Blue or Zingerman’s for a [sando]. I digress. Needless to say, I’ve really missed restaurants throughout this pandemic. I’ve tried my best to put my money where my mouth is by ordering takeout and tipping generously. But I know that the folks who make those restaurants what they are, from the waitstaff to the folks prepping the food in the back, they’re hurting right now. For me, these restaurants are a small joy. For them, it’s their livelihood. As we slowly emerge from this pandemic, particularly for folks who are vaccinated, normal means being able to enjoy the things we took for granted in the before times. Restaurants are an important part of that. But there’s a reason that eat-in dining has been one of the first things to shut down and one of the last things to open back up. In a study published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report—the inventively named CDC Journal—they asked people who had been diagnosed with COVID about the activities they pursued leading up to the diagnosis, and then compared them to match controls who had not been diagnosed with COVID. People who were diagnosed were 2x more likely to have eaten at a restaurant a few weeks prior to their diagnosis. And that makes sense. You’ve got people sitting in an enclosed space without masks on for a prolonged period of time. But as more people get vaccinated, the safety of eating-in will increase. Today, we’re going to dive into the restaurants we miss. We’ll meet two people thinking deeply about how restaurants across the country can open safely. Corby Kummer is a longtime food critic who’s won several James Beard awards for his work. He leads the Food & Society Program at the Aspen Institute. And Chef Amanda Cohen is the chef owner of Dirt Candy, a vegetarian restaurant in New York City. My conversation with them after the break.

 

[ad break]

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Our guests today are Corby Kummer. He is the executive director of Food & Society at the Aspen Institute, and Amanda Cohen, she is the owner and chef at Dirt Candy in New York City. Thank you both for joining our pod today.

 

Corby Kummer: Thanks for having us.

 

Amanda Cohen: Yeah. Thank you so much.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: So as a lay person who enjoys very much eating at restaurants, I have a sense of what the answer to this question is, but I imagine it’s entirely different from the inside of the industry: how has COVID reshaped dining and hospitality?

 

Corby Kummer: I’m going to let Amanda, who is right in the center of the dining and hospitality industry and a LEADER of its recovery, answer that first.

 

Amanda Cohen: Well, I would definitely say it broke it, at the beginning. I mean, almost every restaurant went on pause, had to take a break, and every restaurateur had to figure out how they were going to reopen during COVID, which is not something that—you never think when you open a restaurant, you’re like: oh, I’m going to get a three-month break at some point and have to reopen. And so I think that was the first thing, and really, really hard for restaurateurs and chefs and people who work in the industry to just figure out how to open up in general. But I think the biggest thing it’s done, is it’s really made us aware of sort of our position in the society and the economy and in culture, and what we mean and what value we bring, and how we want to represent ourselves sort of going forward, and what the dialog we want to have with our customers is. Because it has forced every single restauranteur to have a dialog with its customers about: these are our practices, this is what we want to do. Even if you don’t have any COVID sorts of practices or protocols, you’re just like: hey, yeah, it’s free-for-all here. That’s a discussion you’re basically having with your customers, and that’s not something we’ve really ever done before, sort of broken down that fourth wall been like: hey, let’s let’s have this conversation.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah, well, you know, it’s a fascinating thing. You don’t, you don’t think of having to make restaurants pandemic-proof. That’s not what goes into, I imagine, the work, but that’s in effect what you’ve had to do. How did you all handle the pandemic at Dirt Candy?

 

Amanda Cohen: Well, we were pretty skittish about it, so we went very, very slow. I had 35 employees last year before we closed down, and when I reopened in July—which is when New York basically said it was OK to reopen for outdoor dining—we didn’t do any delivery or take [garbled] beforehand. It just seemed, I wasn’t ready to be honest, and my staff wasn’t really ready. I rehired six people and it’s the same six people who are working for me now, and we’ve only done outdoor dining. We haven’t opened for indoor dining yet. We were waiting a) to make sure that everybody on my staff is vaccinated, which fortunately we all are now, but also just to feel a little bit more comfortable with the numbers. And throughout this whole time, we’ve had to have a lot of discussions with customers, which goes back to my other answer. But they haven’t always been easy. And sort of having been the COVID police for the past year in my restaurant, I couldn’t imagine. I think we’ll be able to change this in a bit, but in a bit of time, but I can’t imagine being the COVID police outside of my restaurant and inside the restaurant, and it’s really, it’s really been mentally hard when you’re like: put on your mask, put on your mask, please put on your mask—constantly and constantly reminding people of the rules, and so we’ve basically handled it by trying to be as safe as possible. We have very few tables on our patio, and we’re just taking it one day at a time. We haven’t rushed into it all. Even when NY could open for indoor dining four months ago, or whenever in the fall. We didn’t do it. It just, it didn’t seem safe yet.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, that is both really hard to hear, but also heartening to understand, though, the way that you as a restaurateur have thought about your broader public responsibility in a moment like this. You know, as you think about that framing of a conversation with your clientele, Corby can you talk to us a little bit about how you thought through the idea of safety first—what is it and how does that support restauranteurs as they do this work of trying to get back to some semblance of normal, as inshallah, we get out of this pandemic?

 

Corby Kummer: So I spent decades being a restaurant critic in New York magazine, Boston magazine, Atlanta magazine—I love restaurants! It was incredibly difficult to watch them all close. It was horrible. So I first started applauding and thinking, it’s wonderful that restaurants are reopening at the very beginning of the pandemic to make fed-the-frontlines meals, so they could reopen some of their most vulnerable employees who had no recourse to public assistance of any kind, give them some money to work back-of-the-house shifts and push out meals to health care providers. So the very first thing we did at Food & Society at the Aspen Institute, which is the program I head, was kind of put together all the different health protocols that they said. Because everybody was saying, like, Amanda, I am the COVID policed and I know the best—Amanda would not say: I know the very best procedures—they were all kind of saying: I know the very best procedures. But they were all different. So we used our public health connections and compiled what seemed to be the most important guidelines for restaurants around COVID safety and COVID prevention. Not food safety—that’s other people’s business, they know food safety already. This was for COVID. And then as restaurants started to reopen—Amanda was being very conservative—most of the advisors on the committee we put together at Food & Society for, what turned out to be the most fun weekly meetings any of us had from July onward—we’re sort of sorry that the new set of guidelines for servers are ready, because we love each other so much. So Amanda’s co-conspirator at the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which brought together independent restaurants: how do we survive, how do we advocate for assistance? Chef Russell Jackson in New York has been meeting with us every week. So we’ve got the industry point of view about what’s going to be of most use to staff, how do we keep restaurant workers safe, and how do we keep diners safe, as restaurants reopen? We’ve come out, we’ve gone to the CDC constantly as sort of the supreme authority and we had a 32-year veteran in infection control from the CDC as our lead author of Safety First, our guidelines. But we’ve gone to restaurant to restaurant, to the Independent Restaurant Coalition, James Beard Foundation, National Restaurant Association: all of them. And One Fair Wage, which advocates for food justice for restaurant workers. They’ve all helped us with different aspects of our Safety First Guidelines. And Amanda, you’ll appreciate, since you hate saying to somebody put your mask on, every five seconds, One Fair Wage, which is very careful about how do we not get in the way of restaurant workers and servers making the most money they can—when people like Amanda can only hire six of thirty five, jobs are so hard to come by, we don’t want to risk a cent of their wages. So they gave us a script, and they said whoever is feeding the party at the table should explain the restaurant rules about wearing a mask whenever you’re not actively eating or drinking. And ESPECIALLY when you’re interacting with your server. Don’t ask the server to enforce it, because it could endanger the relationship between the server and the diner. And so they gave us the script. So that’s in our guidelines, along with a lot of other practical pieces of information.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah, I really appreciated reading through it because, you know as an epidemiologist and as someone who really enjoys eating at restaurants, it helps to choreograph exactly those pieces that may interfere with the dining experience for someone who’s not as CVODI-conscious, and I really appreciated that. Amanda, from your perspective as a chef and as a restaurateur, thinking about hopefully bringing your restaurant back to full-speed someday very soon, how does this tool help you, as you both work with your staff and also work with your clientele?

 

Amanda Cohen: It helps in two ways, and then I guess the first way it kind of goes back to what you were saying: for me, if we can make this that choreographed dance as consistent as possible from restaurant to restaurant, it really, really helps out. It’s like sometimes in New York these days it feels like a free-for-all. Like every restaurant does it differently. And certainly, you’ll have guests be like: well, I didn’t have to do that at the last place I went to eat. And you want to be like: yeah, but you have to do it here. And if it’s more burdensome to do something at my restaurant, they’re not going to enjoy their experiences as much. Right? So I really, as a restauranteur, you want that experience. That part of it. Not all of it—there’s certainly flair that you can put into it. But that to be, yeah, just as consistent as possible. So every diner knows: I go to a restaurant, this is what’s going to happen, I’m going to hear the same spiel from the hostess or the host or the maître d’, and they’re going to tell me, and I’m not going to hear that from the server. And it’s just going to sort of, you know, you’re just going to get really used to it. For like being on an airplane and seeing the flight attendant do the seatbelt thing. You know, you’re like: oh, I’m not really paying attention to it, but I’m going to put my seatbelt on because I’m going to get in trouble if I go. So that’s one way. And then the other thing I think it really does, is it makes it clear that both parties have responsibility in this: the restaurant has a responsibility and so does the customer. And we need to be able to share that. And the best—if there’s any best parts of COVID—are really when I think all of us have had to share responsibility, we’re all flattening the curve together, we’re doing this together—and that sort of brings that shared responsibility back into the forefront.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah, that’s, you know, that aspect of sort of thinking about a restaurant like a flight is really important because what all of this sort of comes back to is that the reason that a flight attendant, no matter what flight you take, follows the same exact protocols, is because there’s risks inherent in flying. They’re very small, but there’s risks inherent flying. And in a post-COVID world or an inter-COVID world, there are also risks inherent to eating at a restaurant. And that is what, it’s almost like we’re having to devise an FAA, a Federal Aviation Administration, around how you mitigate those safety concerns. Of course, the risks are changing fast and they’re changing both with the COVID caseload in a particular community, and with a number of vaccinations. Corby, how did you all think about creating a protocol that could shift with that changing risk level?

 

Corby Kummer: So we try to say: what are the top line safety considerations every restaurant has to come up with? And so what we spend every week talking about, you won’t be surprised, is ventilation. We learned SO MUCH about regulation because that is so much the key to safe reopening. So we’ve got a one-pager of ventilation basics that I’m incredibly proud of, because it is doable for restaurants small and large, and on the cheap. So the thing I’m proudest of—although I really love our Diner Code of Conduct and our COVID pledge, which I want every restaurant of the land, starting with Amanda, to post in the window— is the ventilation guidelines. So no matter what, being able to guarantee changes of air and dilution of air so that the more fresh air comes in, the more you exhaust air outward. Open windows where it’s safe. And then we have guidelines for portable air purifying units. So there are these things you’ve seen on the Internet. They range anywhere from $65 to $600 dollars, because they sometimes have ultraviolet and all kinds of gizmos that are unnecessary. All you need is a HEPA filter in these little small units. They’re the size of wastebaskets, if they’re really cheap and you can put them every two tables, and vent them upward—that’s what’s most important. When I say vent upward, one of our most pragmatic pieces of advice is make sure that nobody is sitting next to an intake outlet so that all of the air in the room is blowing past them right into the intake. So we’ve got guidelines for these very cheap, and we’ve got Internet guides of where you get them. Plexiglas barriers, they look like maybe movable blackboards in a room or whiteboards in a meeting, but they’re small. They’re cheap. They’re $75. Amanda, you can drive up to Westchester County and get them, because we’ve seen them, you can put them on wheels. But if you just interrupt the airflow so it’s not horizontal, it’s vertical, that’s incredibly safe. So we think that these are going to be necessary even as vaccination rates rise. And especially as—I’m sure you know, Abdul and you’ve seen it Amanda between New York state and New York City—what governors say is safe to re-open, and they go to 50% or they go to 25% or then 75%, many states at 100%—may not be what the local health authorities particularly agree with. Their often getting ahead of themselves because, for example, the restaurant industry has been suing the health department, as happened in your very own state, Abdul. So these kind of lawsuits are going to continue the pressure to re-open. The public wants to come back to restaurants. So I think that even as vaccination rates are increasing, there’s been no better time to have these consistent safety guidelines, because there’s no telling when herd immunity is going to happen, or state by state what the parity will be, depending on how much money and how much vaccination compliance you’ve got. So this is a very delicate moment when it’s really important for everybody to be safe and play by the same rules.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I really appreciate that. And you surfaced some of the tensions here. On the one hand, there are some restauranteurs who are going to say: all of this doesn’t matter anyway, I don’t want to spend an extra dime, I’ve already lost a lot of money and I don’t want to have to invest in HEPA filtration, even if it’s 60 bucks a pop because you know what, we just need to open. And then there are some who’ll say: you know, I really want to do this, I just, my restaurant was running on really thin margins as it was and I just don’t have the funding. And, you know, this is going to fall on the same kinds of equity lines that we’ve seen. I was the Health Commissioner for Detroit, one of my responsibilities was food safety and in a lot of the lower-income communities, the restaurants were also lower income, and that meant that the capacity to maintain standards was just more difficult, and stay open. How do you think about getting more restaurants to comply and engage with this tool, when you have some political opposition and some just frank lack of resources to do it?

 

Corby Kummer: So I’m going to ask Amanda about what restaurant owners and servers are failing, because it’s a very delicate question. Our aim in Safety First was to make the least expensive, most practical, least complicated rules that would keep people safest—understanding that most small business owners had no leverage over landlords, they couldn’t say: rip out the ventilation system and put in something better, right now, please. They have no leverage. So what is it that they are able to do? What are the distancing guidelines that they can put in: is six foot from chair back to chair back. We’re trying to keep everything as equitable as possible, and we’ve got a whole section, we’ve got stuff just for takeout, just for delivery—how do you keep the delivery people safe while they’re waiting for the deliveries to go out? Amanda, I’m sure you’ve dealt with this. So we’re very, very concerned about equity. And we’re also incredibly concerned about one set of health standards for every worker. I know that Independent Restaurant Coalition and One Fair Wage have been terrifically vocal about make vaccination a priority for your staff, give them paid time-off, if possible, to go. Don’t demand a diagnosis. Give people time off if they’re not feeling well. These are very tough challenges for the lower-income restaurant owners to be able to manage in the field. But we’re working as hard as we can to give them resources to make things equitable.

 

Amanda Cohen: While the guidelines are pretty clear and so I think it’s given them so many options. You can at least participate in most of them, if not all of them. But the other thing, and this is something that the IRC is really worked on, is passing the Restaurant Relief Fund, because in that and in the PPP too, you can spend your money on this. And within both of those, there’s a lot of money, and you’re meant to spend some of it on PPE and that’s exactly what this is. And so these costs will be covered. And I also think as a restauranteur who so believes in this and absolutely plans on following it, I think we can get enough restauranteurs to follow it, then other people will just naturally start to follow on. You don’t want to be the odd man out—it’s like: well my restaurant now seems like the really unsafe one. And I think it’s hard to maybe follow all them, but if you can get most of them, you’re way ahead of the curve and you’re doing such an amazing thing there. So . . .

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: One of the things I really appreciated about Safety First, is its attention to staff. And oftentimes when we talk about restaurants, we focus on the food and we focus on the ambiance, but we don’t appreciate that there’s a whole workforce of people who make the restaurant what it is, and many of them are surviving on lower wages, and given the nature of the work and the interaction with so many people, there is an inherent risk to doing it. And the attention that’s being paid to folks—and I know you worked with good folks at One Fair Wage—can you talk a little bit about how we continue to center some of the folks who make restaurants what they are and cater our experiences at restaurants, as we think about COVID safety and open restaurants and make sure we do that in a safe way?

 

Corby Kummer: Kind of the chief motivation for us at Food & Society at the Aspen Institute is always equity. We have a wonderful Conversations on Food Justice Series, with Share Our Strength—don’t get hungry. And the idea of being patronizing to, or unfair to, or contemptuous of, restaurant workers is like makes me so angry. It makes my blood boil. I’m just so upset by it. And that’s why we were so lucky to get initial funding to do our first Back of House Worker. That was entirely for vulnerable, often undocumented workers, who had no way of getting any kind of assistance, even if they’ve been paying into the unemployment system for years, so that their restaurant employer could employ them, they still couldn’t access that money. So the idea of always keeping restaurant workers first in mind when you go to a restaurant: tipping REALLY BIG, including on takeout orders, is, I think, every involved and engaged diner’s first obligation.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I appreciate that. Amanda, what are your thoughts?

 

Amanda Cohen: Yeah, I mean, I agree with everything. And then I certainly think this past year has shown, if you didn’t already realize it, how important your workers were. And so, I can’t speak for every restauranteur, but I can say that most of the ones I know have spent their year trying to actually keep their workers safe, and figuring out how to make their workplace much better for their workers. And this is just the continuation of it. And on top of that, is the fact that we used to travel around and go to other places and not necessarily be in my restaurant all the time, and I’ve been sucked back into it. And I’m here every day and I’m cooking and I’m, and I’m serving. I cannot tell you how important my workers are. And I really like them and I want them to do their job again so I don’t have to. So I’m really excited to bring them back and give them a really safe workplace that they want to stay at. That’s incredibly important to me. They’re way better at their job than I am. Like, I’m a terrible server. And I want them to feel safe and comfortable and enjoy their job. And that’s I think that’s the next issue that the industry is going to tackle. I think we’ve already been tackling it. How do we make sure that our workers want to come back to work every day, and they’re not being taken advantage of? And Safety First is doing a pretty good job of that.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: You know, how would you respond to folks who say, you know what, they take the maximalist approach, which is: it’s just not safe to eat in a restaurant right now, and any effort to make it safer would just invite potential risk that we don’t necessarily need to be taking. How do you respond to that critique? And can you speak to what the broader goals in taking that on might have been as you framed Safety First?

 

Corby Kummer: I want to leap in because I’m so excited about the chief spokesperson at the Centers for Disease Control writing an kind of Op Ed or article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, JAMA, which they published on Friday, saying—it started off with all kinds of kind of scary stories about outbreaks in states like your very own Abdul’s, associated with restaurants and indoor dining. And what it was really doing was criticizing the lack of mask mandates in states. And then it devoted the last third to here is what restaurants should do if they are going to reopen and reopen safely. It followed to the letter what we say in Safety First. Of course, we were following to the letter, trying to keep up with CDC guidance, in some cases getting a little ahead of CDC, going to various: California, New York, Philadelphia, Michigan—going to various health departments around the country and saying, what are you seeing and what do you think are best practices? So no other restaurant association-approved set of guidelines is quite as hand-in-glove with the CDC editorial from last Friday. And I’m telling everybody that I did not pay CDC to place that article the Friday before we released our guidelines, but we’re very happy about it. So what it was saying was: yes, it can be risky, but here is the way to make it safe if it happens. And that’s what our whole approach with Safety first is.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I think that is an important perspective. And I think that the hard part about this pandemic is that oftentimes we just want a hard and fast set of rules and any time anybody opposes those rules, we think they’re just breaking rules. And what we kind of have to understand is that this whole thing is about shades of gray. In certain circumstances when you have runaway spread, you know, it may be true that indoor dining is just not the thing that needs to be done at the time. And at the same time, when you start having fewer and fewer cases, the consequences of forcing businesses to stay closed become so much more costly, than they are beneficial. And that cost benefit piece, I really appreciated that you took so much care to bake into the protocols in the work at Safety First. And so I really appreciate that perspective. I want to just step back and zoom out from Safety First for a second, and I can think of four restaurants off the top of my head that I really enjoyed going to before the pandemic that have closed permanently, and it is really sad to see because every one of those restaurants was a set of livelihoods and a place for joy and congregation to do what we do as humans, which is come together and enjoy good food and and enjoy one another’s company. How are we going to need to think about making sure that the consequences of this pandemic irreparably harm the restaurant industry? And I can see that happening in a couple of ways. One is that just restaurants don’t open up. And two, probably more importantly, that the restaurants that shut down are the smaller, independently-owned restaurants that provide so much spice to life, versus the larger corporate chains that have enough capital to be able to withstand the moment—how do we think about what the consequences of the pandemic might look like, and what do we need to do to protect our restaurants from that?

 

Amanda Cohen: You have to go out and support them. I mean, you have to spend your money at them. And to be honest, even if you don’t have the money to support them, I swear, just writing them a note, just letting them know that you’re waiting for them on the other side. Like, if somebody who doesn’t feel comfortable going out to restaurants and it’s going to be many, many months before you do, I would let the restaurant that you love, that still exists, actually know that you will be there for them in four months. And it’s enough for a reason. We had a pretty tough winter in New York and we served outside every day. And some days we served two people. Some days we served six. Some days we did more. And it was really our regulars who I’m pretty sure they didn’t like eating outside in a snowstorm, but knowing that once a week Scott was going to come and be there for us, and we were going to be there for him, it was a really, really small thing, but so big. And so the more you can let those restaurants know that you’re going to be there for them, if you can’t spend your dollars at them, it’s huge. And then, of course, spending your dollars at them if you can.

 

Corby Kummer: Two things I did during the pandemic and closing was, of course, take out, take out, take out. Constant carry out. Never, never in my life if I were to carry out as much as I have. I tried to go to the restaurants to pick it up if I could, because I read so many horrible stories about Grubhub and Seamless and Uber Eats and the various gouging of delivery services. And I bought gift certificates for when restaurants re-open for various friends and said here’s [garbled] you can reopen. But Abdul you absolutely hit on such an important factor of human life, which is the sense of community. That it’s a shared compact. As Amanda just said, it’s between customer and restaurant. So every local business around, whether it be a florist or hardware store or whatever, wherever we could spend money that wasn’t on a chain and there wasn’t the corporate backing, we did that. And I think that the pandemic has made people so much more aware of their role in forming community, and how important community is to them. Going out on the street, seeing people, the kind of people you nod at—there’s a name for the kind of wallpaper of people you don’t really have speaking relationships to but it’s very important that you see them regularly on the street or at the supermarket—where we’ve befriended everybody because we’re so close to them. But restaurants were where this all came together and happened, and people formed this close-knit sense of community. And I think we all hunger for that to come back.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I couldn’t agree more. I’ve had my regulars. So shout out to the Jerusalem Market in Ann Arbor and Bellflower in Ypsilanti, where I get my oyster po-boy every Friday. And knowing that at some point, hopefully my dollars would help to tide them through, and get them to the point where we could go back and enjoy a meal at those restaurants, I hope was meaningful. But it’s helpful to hear the perspective from the other side. I really appreciate you taking the time to walk us through Safety First, to talk to us about how these institutions that have really been battered through this pandemic can make it, and can do so safely if we’re thoughtful about following scientifically-based protocol, and making sure that we’re doing what we can to support them. So thank you so much for joining. That was, again, Corby Kummer, who is the Executive Director of the Food & Society Program at the Aspen Institute. Chef Amanda Cohen, who is the chef and owner at Dirt Candy in New York City. Thank you guys again.

 

Amanda Cohen: Thank you.

 

Corby Kummer: Thank you.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: As usual, here’s what I’m watching right now: look, I know that Michigan’s not the center of the universe, but unfortunately it is the center of COVID transmission in America right now. And cases continue to rise. Despite rates that are higher than they were at Thanksgiving, state officials still aren’t willing to rethink things like indoor dining, indoor sports, casinos and gyms—all of which are helping drive the transmission. Last week, Governor Whitmer urged people to pause on things like school sports, eat-in dining and gyms, but she stopped short of an all-out shutdown. Instead, she called on the Biden administration to surge vaccines to Michigan. But here’s the problem with that: even if every Michigander were to get their vaccine today, it would take 10 days for the protective antibodies to show up in their blood. And in 10 days, at the pace that the surge is going, it could mean a doubling of cases. For their part, federal officials are resisting sending vaccines to Michigan. The truth is we need both vaccines and a real lockdown. The stalemate between policy and politics is leaving Michiganders out to dry. Michigan offers a look into how we might deal with national surges in the future. Do we care more about a veneer of optimism that COVID is almost over, or about doing what we need to do to make sure that it is? I worry about what’s to come. An analysis by the European Medicines Agency reveals a possible link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and a higher than expected number of blood clots in young people. However, the agency continues to recommend the vaccines, as the benefits outweigh the harms. Nevertheless, given the subtext of vaccine hesitancy that already exists, this is profoundly shaking confidence in the world’s most available vaccine, one that represents the only current option for many low- and middle-income countries. It reminds us that we have to do all we can to get every single person, not just every American, vaccinated. We’ve got a lot of work to do. That’s all for this week. If you like our pod, please make sure to rate and review. It really helps our discoverability on the podcast apps. Also, I hope that you’ll check out my substack newsletter, The Incision. Last week I wrote about vaccine passports. Something will come back to on the pod. Check it out at Incision.substack.com.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: America Dissected is a product of Crooked Media. Our producer is Austin Fisher. Our associate producer is Olivia Martinez. Veronica Simonetti mixes in masters of the show. Production support from Tara Terpstra and Lyra Smith. Theme song is Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Sugiura. Our executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Sandy Girard, and me, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, your host. Also major shout-out to Alison Falzetta, who’s been with the show since the beginning. She’s leaving America Dissected for new pursuits at Crooked. Thanks for everything, Alison. And to you, thanks for listening.

 

America Dissected