I’m puzzled that during the pandemic so few cafes near me have moved to serving customers outside, by moving their ordering and payment apparatus to the doorway. I’ve seen about five cafes in San Francisco do this (few enough that none are conveniently close).

(I wanted to include a photo, but I actually just can’t find a picture online, such an obscure idea it is, I guess?)

Is this harder than it looks to organize? And even if it is for a small business run by a single person without a spare second all year to think about aerosols or reorganize, I’m still surprised that Starbucks doesn’t have its act together more.

How bad is it to have your customers indoors to order and pickup their drinks? Some Microcovid estimates for San Francisco, right now: Indoor: about 20 microcovids Outdoor: about 1 microcovid

So very roughly 20 extra microcovids per visitor.

How many visitors? Seems like a Starbucks restaurant serves maybe 500 customers per day = ~10k extra microcovids per day. A lot, but still 100 days to cause an extra case of covid. So only a few extra cases of covid per year, per cafe. Then maybe a factor of two for people they infect. Should they move their whole ordering counter to the front of the store just to avoid like seven people getting covid per year?

Well, that’s maybe 14% of a death per year per cafe, and maybe one person disabled longer term.

Which seems pretty bad, for an arrangement of furniture. For instance, if some brand of cafe had a characteristic setup of tables such that every year in one in seven of these cafes someone died, and in just about every outlet, someone was badly injured every year, I think their negligence would be their main claim to fame, if they were not straight up shut down by the law. Am I wrong?

We can also ask, how bad is it for someone to get covid, then compare to the costs of rearranging. Let’s very roughly guess: P(death) of 1.7% * estimated statistical value of life of $9M * 15% of life left at average age of US covid death of about 76 * a factor of 2 for disability (a guesstimate I’ve heard, based on way more likely but way less bad than death, though I wonder about this, since it is also affecting people much younger). That gives us $0.05/microcovid.1 So doing it outside seems worth very roughly $1 to each customer, or about $500 per day across customers.

This has ignored spread from each person who gets it to others, which seems hard to reason about, but it seems that so far a person who gets covid spreads it to more than one other person directly on average, since the number of cases has gone up overall. For the social costs of this, we also care about further cases caused indirectly, but that seems hard to reason about, so let’s say roughly (and I think optimistically) that if you give an extra customer covid, that causes around one additional covid case. This gives us a total social cost of around $1000 per day from not moving the counter.

(This doesn’t account for the customers who find your cafe too risky and avoid it.)

The effort of moving the counter seems unlikely to be this high.

But maybe it isn’t negligible, and cafes can’t afford to do it without recouping some costs from customers, and there just isn’t demand?

Do customers not care? If an identical coffee were $2.00 more at one cafe instead of another nearby, I expect a lot of people to habitually frequent the cheaper one. Do people not think covid is that bad? (Why not?) My guess would have been that there were a variety of people, and that many people were going to great lengths to avoid getting covid, so at least their patronage would be altered by the covid dose one gets with one’s coffee. But that doesn’t seem true.

Especially perplexing evidence reached me via a trip to Philz. I am told they did have some kind of outdoors serving, which makes sense since they have a large window in the front of their store. But when I went there, in the middle of the pandemic, they had just moved everything back into the store and proudly told me that ‘I could come inside!’ as if I was really hanging out for an opportunity for some indoor co-breathing but had been barred from this by some kind of paternalism. I continued on my way, looking for an outdoor cafe, but couldn’t find one, so eventually came back because at least Philz could be ordered from my phone and had a window open. But their behavior suggests that there is some kind of public demand for the joy of ordering indoors.

I wonder if I’m wrong somehow. I’ve historically been pretty pro-Starbucks, but when their customers’ lives were at stake, they seem to have just thrown a bunch of them away. I wish I saw their perspective better. (Not to suggest they are worse than many others. I wish I understood any of them.)

  1. For a different estimate, I think my house puts a microcovid at about 0.2 minutes of loss in expectation (including from death and disability). If an average person here earns very roughly $50k, maybe they value their time at roughly $25/h (their salary), which is $0.08 per 0.2 minutes, so $0.08 per microcovid.