As of July 3, West Egg Cafe requires diners and people grabbing takeout to wear masks inside the Howell Mill Road restaurant, joining other establishments like 8ARM, Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours, 97 Estoria, Le Petit Marche, and breweries such as Monday Night Brewing.
When the popular Westside Provisions District brunch restaurant reopened for dine-in service on June 17, it came with a detailed COVID-19 safety plan: Reservations were required on the weekends, dining was limited to 45 minutes, a 20 percent gratuity was added to all checks, and masks were highly encouraged — but not mandatory.
Within a week, a post appeared on West Egg’s Instagram account pleading with people to wear masks inside the restaurant, even threatening to close down the dining room again. “Right now, wearing a mask is a sign of respect,” the post read.
Co-owner Jen Johnson says they worried requiring masks would put staff in the difficult position of enforcement, fearing some patrons might become aggressive. They had hoped the other, more stringent measures, like reservations and limiting dining to under an hour, would minimize the need for employees to have tough conversations with diners.
But after two weeks of “asking nicely, then begging” patrons to wear masks, managers and staff were fed up. Following weeks of “too many people, not enough masks on faces,” no one is allowed inside West Egg Cafe without a mask. People can purchase a disposable mask for $2 at the host stand.
“We’ll sacrifice West Egg before we sacrifice our staff,” says Johnson.
Despite record-breaking numbers likely sparked by Georgia’s aggressive reopening, including no capacity limits at restaurants, masks are not a statewide requirement. Gov. Brian Kemp calls a mask mandate a “bridge too far,” opting instead to embark on a statewide publicity tour encouraging residents to don a mask whenever possible.
“Without a mandate from the governor, it once again puts us in another impossible situation where the individual business owner is forced to make decisions that can be viewed in a political lens. We just need leadership, and we aren’t getting it,” says Federico Castellucci, president and CEO of the Castellucci Hospitality Group.
The lack of a mask mandate sets up front-of-house employees, like hosts, servers, and bartenders, to face abusive interactions with diners refusing to wear face coverings — on top of putting them at greater risk for contracting the virus.
While most people employed in white-collar professions can safely work from home during the ongoing pandemic, nearly 70 percent of people working in public-facing, essential businesses, like restaurants and grocery stores, have little choice but to go into work every day.
A server working at a restaurant along the busy Eastside Beltline tells Eater Atlanta nine out of 10 people he serves during his shifts aren’t wearing masks. He faces problems with controlling the actions of larger groups of young people who want to sit together, many of whom are already intoxicated from a previous stop. The server has children and is his family’s sole provider, so he worries about who will take care of them if he becomes sick.
At a suburban north Atlanta restaurant, a bartender says she’s concerned for her health, as most patrons are not wearing masks. A fellow employee recently tested positive for COVID-19. She’s currently quarantining at home and awaiting her test results after working with the infected employee.
“The diners aren’t wearing masks, for the most part. I guess when it hits that close to you is when you realize that it’s really scary to be serving people and cleaning up after people when they could all be carriers,” she says. “As for social distancing, I would say the guests completely disregard that. This whole situation is super stressful.”
Another bartender working at a Westside restaurant says regulars continue to try and hug or shake hands with staff. Employees refuse, but the attempts by customers to make the dining experience feel “normal,” coupled with a nonchalant attitude toward the virus and masks, creates a tense situation between restaurant employees and patrons.
“Guests don’t respond well to being told we are not honoring standing room or seats are not available due to social distancing.”
Currently, 21 states require the public to wear masks. Savannah became the first city in Georgia to require face coverings, with violators risking a $500 fine. The governor’s emergency powers prevent local municipalities from enacting more severe COVID-19 measures. It’s unclear if Kemp plans to block Savannah’s mask ordinance. A mask mandate is now being considered in Athens, home to the University of Georgia. The Athens-Clarke County Commission votes on the mask ordinance July 7. Beginning July 15, all schools and institutions within the University System of Georgia will require people to wear face coverings inside buildings when social distancing isn’t possible.
“Until we have a vaccine, we need society to step up — and our window is closing,” Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease specialist and executive associate dean of Emory University School of Medicine, told the AJC.
He, along with Dr. Jonathan Lewin, the CEO of Emory Healthcare, stress that the simple act of wearing a mask may be the key to saving more lives and thwarting another economic shutdown in Georgia.
According to a server working at a Poncey-Highland restaurant, employees are encouraged to ask diners to move back if they feel a person is too close for comfort. When the restaurant first reopened in May, she says no diners were wearing masks. Several weeks into the reopening, more and more people are coming in wearing some form of face covering. For those without face coverings, a disposable mask is provided at the restaurant’s expense. Still, the server says she’s concerned and calls working during the pandemic “nerve-wracking.”
She wants diners to understand the best way to support restaurant workers right now is to wear a mask and show respect for the lives and livelihoods of the people serving them.
“Everyone I know working in restaurants right now is scared. We have no choice but to go to work every day,” she says. “It would be really nice if people wore masks when they came into the restaurant. It would be nice if people wore masks when they speak to us, even if you just took it back up to your ear when we come by to check on your table. Just wearing a mask would alleviate so much anxiety for us.”