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Abstract

Restaurant workers have higher rates of “heavy drinking” than most occupational groups. However, little is known about how their drinking behaviors may have transformed during the COVID-19 pandemic and the unique challenges they have faced as a population during this time. An exploration of restaurant workers’ own perceptions of their alcohol consumption patterns prior to and during the pandemic can provide important insights into how they may have been coping with the added stress of the pandemic. This paper examines this question as well as the social and cultural factors of working in a restaurant environment that can lead to increased alcohol consumption for those in the service industry and the symbolic load alcohol holds for those in restaurant work communities. Drawing from the notion of alcohol as “embodied material culture” as well as other ethnographic studies, this paper explores the ways in which alcohol constructs social networks and beliefs around the substance for restaurant workers. This research also examines the transformation of restaurant workers’ drinking rituals since the start of the pandemic. Additionally, this research shows that the social meaning surrounding alcohol use in restaurant work communities is that it is a way to facilitate bonds between co-workers and cope with stressful factors surrounding restaurant work as well as the new challenges that have impacted restaurant workers since the pandemic began (e.g. unemployment, understaffing, enforcement of CDC restrictions related to COVID-19). Findings from this research suggest an increase in restaurant workers’ alcohol use during the pandemic due to the many challenges restaurant workers faced during this time and, especially, because of the drinking culture in restaurant communities where the norm is to drink “heavily” and regularly, resulting in an ambivalent attitude towards excessive alcohol use.

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