In a pandemic, serving coffee at Stirling’s is a matter of life and death.

By Camila Hwang-Carlos
Contributing Writer

 Stirling’s Coffee House opened in mid August, at the same time that students began to return to campus. Our first week open, I interacted with countless people every day. I was yelled at by families dropping off their kids for things over which I had no control. No public bathrooms, slow internet, the mask mandate, the need for social distancing, and various other inconveniences were the favorite topics of these customers. In truth, the students were far nicer than I had expected, but I had also expected the worst.

There are some days when my throat grows hoarse from yelling across the yard to socially distance and my hands are raw from the amount of washing. Every day, I return home from work with red marks on my cheeks and the bridge of my nose. For the customer, your meal plan swipe, your $2.00 coffee, your brief interaction with us, may seem inconsequential, trivial, meaningless. For us, every interaction is a life or death chance. We interact with so many people each day, one infection could easily lead to the entire campus. The reason we yell at you to socially distance or to keep your mask on when you’re at the counter is because we are carrying a weight: our community’s safety, and our own.

Let me pose a situation to you: you get permission to go to a doctor’s appointment in Chattanooga. On the way to Chattanooga you realize you need gas and you think, “Oh I won’t interact with many people so it’ll be fine.” Maybe the appointment takes longer than you thought and so you go through the drive through to get some food. Statistically, yes, the chances of getting COVID-19 from a surface or food is lower than air based transmission, but you can never know if you will become that statistic.

Every decision every one of us makes now holds the weight of everyone you interact with and everyone they interact with. Maybe after that trip to Chattanooga you grab a coffee from Stirling’s and you infect the person at the counter. Suddenly every worker and every customer is a victim of your decision to break the rules and think of only yourself. It’s times like these when we can see who thinks of customer service employees as human beings, and who thinks of them as facets of a business. When you interact with someone, take a minute to decide whether or not you care if they die. If you don’t care, it’s time to take a serious look at yourself and the things you consider important in life. It may sound dramatic, but it’s what we are dealing with right now. COVID-19 affects each person differently, there is no way to know if you will live or die. 

I think we all know about the massive amount of students at Sewanee who vape or smoke. In that way, our numbers of high risk members of the bubble is extremely high. When I am working, yes, I care about my own safety and I fear for my own health, but more so, I fear about each person I see sitting on the lawn. I fear for my coworkers and their roommates. I fear for the professors who are risking their lives to further our education.

Also, I am angry. I am angry that I have to convince people to care about the lives of those around them. I am angry that some people would rather go to a party than help their peers survive. I am angry that people don’t listen to me when I tell them to put a mask on or distance themselves. I am angry that I am risking my life to serve you coffee, and you can’t be polite. 

Sometimes I wish I could transmit the memory of our job into every customer. Just one memory of one hour on the lunch rush. One hour of the underlying anxiety and stress. One hour of staring at an endless line of orders, and with each one, the burden of human life. One hour with the promise of $7.25 and a life or death gamble. It doesn’t have to be a gamble. You, as members of the Sewanee community, can make it safe.

We have been doing well here in the bubble, but we cannot slack off with the restrictions. I know that it’s hard to follow these guidelines for so long. We are all struggling and it isn’t going to get easier for a long time, especially if you make the wrong choices. If you refuse to keep your community safe, then why remain here? If you don’t care about the lives of those around you, what is the point of our community? Why join us if you don’t care if we live or die? 

I am not asking you to not eat at Stirling’s. I am asking you to take a moment to consider the people behind your coffee. When you come to the counter, I ask you to take a couple steps back, or at least listen when we ask you to move. The next time you decide that BOGO is worth the risk, think about the employees and the people you interact with every day, who didn’t get the option of whether or not to risk it. When we hand you your meal, we do not know where you have been, whom you have interacted with, or if you have worn a mask. You may have made the choice to risk your life for half priced beer, but we get no option. If you risked your life, you are also risking ours.