How Starbucks Helped Me Endure the Pandemic. Until Now.

I used to smirk at people who sat in line, engines idling, for long periods of time at a local Starbucks. I could park, go in, place my order, use the bathroom, collect my order, and walk out while they sat there just waiting.

My wife and I spent a lot of time at Starbucks. We connected with friends, we grabbed a refreshing beverage while running errands, we read books and magazines and newspapers. We took our niblings there when ice cream wasn’t an option.

That was in pre-pandemic times.

When the pandemic came, we dropped almost all of our habits – no restaurants, no treats, no stores, no nothing. Everything was curbside, delivered, or just not bought. The only place we went was our pharmacy that did not have a drive-thru. We determined the risk of transferring over a decade of medication histories was not a good idea during a pandemic. We just masked up. And soon realized we could use our Starbucks app to order ahead and quickly grab a mobile to-go order from the store next to the pharmacy. It could be done safely and quickly.

Then we realized that the drive-thru Starbucks was another good option, even with long lines. Almost immediately, a trip to Starbucks became part of any trip we made – to pick up groceries, to get the car gassed up, and to the pharmacy. After taking our pets to the vet or our fosters to their clinic. When we did leave the house for an errand, Starbucks was part of that trip.

We lost so much, including many small moments. We couldn’t go out for breakfast and it was not something easily ordered in, right? We lost touch with our friends who were servers. We were fortunate enough to be able to order take-out regularly, but at some point we all know it isn’t the same. We contended with masks, gloves, wipes, sanitizer for each trip out of the house. Adding one stop to an existing plan was a pragmatic way to have something small and nice in the midst of so much uncertainty.

I share this fully aware of how much privilege we had in these times – we have not had to worry about lost income, lost health insurance, lost jobs, lost housing, or losing our minds. But we have losses.

Starbucks took on a new level of value in our lives. Everyone was masked. The floors were marked for distance. Plastic shields were in place to protect my drinks from the overeager customer scanning the names just in case the barista forgot to call them. Tables were removed, seats taped up. For awhile, even the bathroom was off-limits.

But still, the staff were friendly and tried to be upbeat. They asked people to mask up, they constantly asked about straws and urged people to stand back from the counter. They dealt with ridiculous special orders. It was clear they were doing really important work.

For the record, I haven’t placed a special order since March 2020. I order simple drinks. I heat my own foods. When I’ve had to return a wrong drink, I tip extra. I tried to be a low-maintenance customer. And I tipped a lot. If I did create more work, I tipped higher. I said thank you. I body blocked the lookey-lous who coldn’t wait for their drinks like everyone else.

Starbucks became far more than a destination for us, it became an almost sacred space where we could feel normal  – the old normal and the new normal – for a few minutes. We didn’t know the baristas in the way we had known our favorite servers, but they became a lifeline to us behind their masked faces. That few moments of eye contact was often the only human interaction, beyond my wife, that I had in a week’s time. We tried new drinks. We fell back on old reliables. We rolled with the punches when supply chains devastated store inventory and COVID-19 closed entire stores.  We could literally be happy with a cup of coffee with cream (me) and an iced tea (Laura) because it was not about the drinks.

Starbucks became a new type of community center. You couldn’t stay long, you couldn’t  have a real conversation, but you could be in a relatively safe space or even in a line of cars together. TOGETHER.

So I was quite upset to learn that Starbucks Corporate is ripping that bit of a glimpse to a new normal away by rolling back their employee vaccine mandate.

From the New York Times

Starbucks told its employees in a memo on Tuesday that they would no longer be required to be fully vaccinated or submit to weekly coronavirus testing. Just two weeks earlier, the company had detailed the requirement and set a deadline of Feb. 9.

The Supreme Court’s decision did not prohibit companies from keeping their vaccine rules in place, and many will continue rolling out stringent Covid-19 safety protocols, especially as Covid case counts remain high.

According to this article, Starbucks

  • did not consult with their existing unions or union organizers about this policy change. that’s a big fail.
  • declared over 90% of employees had disclosed their vaccination status – so why not just finish the job?
  • failed to address employee concerns about unsafe working conditions

This is a major bad decision on the part of Starbucks. Omicron does not kill people who are vaccinated. Most people are not wearing the proper masks. The employees deserve so much better, they deserve to know at the very least that their coworkers are safe to be around. They deserve all the good things in the world for pulling this fucking country through a horrible pandemic. They risked their health, their lives to make frappucinos. And those drinks provided a touchstone for tens of thousands of people who literally had nowhere else to go beyond idling in parking lots waiting for packages and home.

I am 100% in favor of unions in all Starbucks. I’ll pay more so they can earn a decent living with benefits. And they deserve better by Starbucks corporate now. We all do. Starbucks should lead the way into our new normal, not fall back on corporate shenanigans of yesteryear.

This is not some declaration to boycott Starbucks. I honestly don’t know what we are going to do. We want to support businesses like the Square Cafe in East Liberty that have a strict requirement about showing vaccination cards. But they are only open limited hours on the other side of town so it isn’t the same. But we will be there because they clearly value us and their employees. As find other restaurants taking similar measures, we will be there. We will help build a new normal with our privilege and our common sense. And our votes.

It is really up to Starbucks to lean into their reputation or to dismantle it. I honestly resent the fuck out of them for this decision. I feel so bad for their employees who have to put with ignorant behavior every day. This must feel like the worst betrayal. And I feel bad for me because I just want to cling to that bastion of what I thought Starbucks represented.


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