I once knocked on the back door of a cheesemonger in Brooklyn and waited outside for a lump of hard-to-find, extremely expensive, unmarked butter produced by Diane St. Clair at her tiny creamery in Orwell, Vt.

It was delicious — sunshine-yellow and sweet — but the last thing I expected was that President Trump would discuss it in a meeting at the White House. On Monday, he did just that.

At the gathering, fast-food executives and owners of fine-dining restaurants sat down with the president, Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials to discuss plans for reopening and the government’s relief programs for the industry.

But as restaurateurs tried to steer the conversation toward topics like Paycheck Protection Program loans, extending the window for spending relief money, public health and economic uncertainty, Mr. Trump repeatedly went off course.

He claimed he’d already “saved” the restaurant business, and at one point asked the chef Thomas Keller about his favorite butter:

THE PRESIDENT: What’s the difference in butter? Tell me. The difference in butter between what she sells you and what you would normally be able to buy. Out of curio- — I don’t want to —

MR. KELLER: It’s — it is extraordinary because it is — it is truly a seasonal product, so the butter changes flavor and color depending on the season. So in the early —

THE VICE PRESIDENT: There’s no comparison.

MR. KELLER: — in the spring, when they’re eating green, when they’re grazing on grass — green grass — the butter is —

THE PRESIDENT: That’s fantastic.

MR. KELLER: — a beautiful orange hue. And, of course, in the summertime, it turns lighter because they’re eating hay. So — and the flavors taste —

THE PRESIDENT: Mike just said there is no comparison. He knows. (Laughter.)

MR. KELLER: There’s a —

THE PRESIDENT: He knows. (Inaudible) from Indiana. He knows.

MR. KELLER: There’s a tremendous — a tremendous difference in the butter from —

THE PRESIDENT: No kidding. So, that’s good.

MR. KELLER: Oh, yeah. It’s extraordinary.

For those watching the remarks, or reading the transcript published by the White House, it often seemed like a few men — and all 10 of the restaurant representatives at the table were men — tipsily chatting over their picket fences on a summer afternoon.

It did not seem like a conversation happening in the workplace of the president of the United States in the middle of a global pandemic. It did not seem as if many thousands of Americans had died, and millions were out of work, or as if one of the nation’s most important economic engines — the hospitality industry — was in a tailspin.

Days later, I’m still bewildered. Mr. Trump’s response didn’t just minimize the most urgent concerns of millions of people, it tried to joke them away.

I’d expected little from the discussion. Small-restaurant owners and workers — among them the women, immigrants and undocumented people who work behind the scenes — weren’t represented at the table.

Mr. Keller brought up diversity within the industry in a roundabout way, saying: “We don’t really care about your education. We’re not concerned about where you come from, your religious beliefs. We are open to everybody.”

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Credit…Evan Vucci/Associated Press

But this didn’t ring true. Restaurants may hire people of color, immigrants, undocumented people and Indigenous people, but they are generally relegated to low-paying kitchen jobs. And many of those workers struggle to secure benefits and move up in a system that depends on their cheap labor.

The pandemic has only made the disparities within restaurants more obvious, and the need for changes more urgent.

The meeting sputtered and went off on tangents — like the one about the butter — devolving again and again into empty superlatives and the smallest of small talk. Mr. Trump made several sweeping promises of “coming back stronger,” but shared no vision of how to accomplish that.

By the end of the roughly 100-minute meeting, it was painfully apparent that there was no plan, no strategy, no blueprint in the works for the restaurant industry. It was up to restaurants to figure it all out for themselves.

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also released its guidelines for the reopening of restaurants, after the White House shelved an earlier draft. Among other straightforward suggestions, the C.D.C. mentions masks, recommending that all restaurants reopening “require the use of cloth face coverings among all staff.”

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 20, 2020

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • Should I pull my money from the markets?

      That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.


This seems like a simple directive, but because the federal government and many states have failed to issue clear, consistent rules, restaurants are largely left to make up their own. Many are not allowing staff to wear masks, or making that protection optional. For now, it’s unclear how severe the consequences will be.

Mr. Keller brought up that butter, made in a small creamery with just a few cows, to try to illustrate the symbiotic relationship between restaurants and farms. It was an esoteric example, sure, but it made a crucial point: Restaurants are inextricably connected to fisheries, farms, florists and hundreds of other kinds of small businesses across the country.

Shuttered restaurants create an extended national network of suffering — unemployment, missed rent payments, lapsed health insurance.

A thoughtful, coordinated, government-led initiative to protect restaurant workers, owners and diners, and control the spread of the coronavirus as businesses reopen, is essential. And it’s already disturbingly late.

What happens next affects millions of lives, but as the conversation wound down, the president seemed to turn from the story about the desperation of the restaurant business and its critical needs, and focus on another.

“Beautiful story,” he said, “with a woman with the eight cows.”