Over the past several weeks, as Michigan restaurants and bars have begun reopening their dining rooms, customers have slowly trickled in for meals at their favorite establishments. And while some herald this moment as a return to normalcy after months of confinement, the circumstance of dining out are decidedly different: Dining rooms are at 50 percent capacity, hand sanitizer is everywhere, and employees are wearing masks. The customers stepping through the doors, prior to being seated at a table or picking up a carryout order, are also wearing face coverings — or at least they should be — to limit the transmission of the novel coronavirus.
Before the pandemic, a restaurant employee might occasionally have to deal with a customer who was angry about quality of service or a misplaced dining reservation. But increasingly, front-of-house workers are finding themselves in a strange new position: mask enforcer.
Kaitlin Yarbrough never imagined that her position as assistant manager at Eli Tea in Birmingham would morph into something more akin to a bouncer at a rowdy bar. Despite having six signs at the entrance to the tea shop outlining the state-mandated rules for visiting food businesses, Yarbrough estimates that she has to remind around 20 to 30 people per day to put on a mask before entering the business. A handful of those customers do not take her instructions well.
A few times a week since the cafe reopened for limited takeout-only service in May, Yarbrough says she has encountered “super-aggravated customers” who become incensed or dismissive when she explains the mask rule. “We’ve never had interactions with customers like this before,” she says. Recently, a man came through the doorway at Eli Tea without a mask on and ignored several requests to step outside and call in his order. “He decided to stand in our doorway and shout across the room,” she says. Eventually, she says the man left, only to call the store 10 minutes later. “He calls the store and says, ‘I just wanted to let you know that I’m a regular and I will never be coming to this establishment again because you told me that I had to wear a mask and I feel like it’s well within my rights to not wear one to come in. And this is just ridiculous and I’m never come in again,’” Yarbrough recalls.
Yarbrough says that when the mask rules were put into effect in late April, she and owner Elias Majid were understanding with customers who weren’t yet familiar with the rules. Now that it’s been a more than a month since the requirements were put in place, she’s less forgiving. “We’re trying to be as safe as possible and respectful of everybody else’s boundaries,” she says. “So, when we have customers who think that they’re above all of it, it definitely feels very disrespectful.”
Masks and face coverings, when worn properly over the nose and mouth with several layers of fabric, have been shown to reduce the transmission of the novel coronavirus through airborne droplets. Employees with face-to-face customer-service jobs are particularly at risk of exposure to the virus. While an employee wearing a cloth mask can reduce the likelihood of that worker passing the virus unknowingly to customers and coworkers, customers must also wear a mask to reduce the likelihood of infecting service workers and other customers.
Beyond public health protocols, Yarbrough points to more sinister concerns, like the undercurrent of fear that customers will become aggressive. There have been several reported incidents in recent months where patrons at businesses became violent when employees enforced mask rules. A handful of those incidents took place in Michigan, and in at least one situation, someone was hurt: a security worker at a Family Dollar in Flint was allegedly shot and killed after a confrontation over a mask. These sorts of reports create additional tension when customers push back against rules.
While mask use is highly recommended in indoor settings, authorities have been less preoccupied with guidelines for outdoor use. Experts say that open-air spaces are less risky than indoor spaces for virus transmission. It’s the same reason why many customers favor dining out in patio spaces during the pandemic over dining indoors. However, this advice complicates safety measures for restaurants with walk-up windows, like Matt & Mo’s, a new Italian beef stand occupying Doug’s Delight in Hazel Park. On Sunday, June 14, the restaurant posted a message to Facebook outlining its “no mask, no service,” policy after allegedly receiving hate messages, emails, and fake reviews “to make us look bad.” The owners write that the restaurant’s walk-up window creates a “hard, direct draft of wind that flows inside the building,” suggesting that airborne droplets could be coming inside the restaurant during service.
David Smith, a partner in Cafe Muse in Royal Oak, has started working the door at the restaurant. “I’ve been trying to do most of the seating, because it’s just really difficult when you have like an 18- or 19-year-old [employee] at the front having to enforce mask wearing,” he says. In the week and a half since the restaurant has been open for dine-in service, he’s already had several unsettling run-ins with customers. “We had one that we had to call the actual police on a customer because he was really irate,” Smith says. The customer had stepped inside without a mask to pay for a carryout order — typically paid for over the phone — and became angry. “[He was] yelling and screaming,” Smith says. Co-owner Greg Reyner stepped out of the kitchen and asked the man to step outside, telling him that his food would be brought to the curb. When the customer refused, Reyner told him to vacate the premises. Later, the customer called and allegedly threatened the staff. Smith says that at that point, he and Reyner contacted the police.
Smith had a similar incident with a regular picking up carryout who couldn’t understand why he was required to wear a mask indoors while customers who were seated in the dining room were not. Smith says that he explained the policy as it was outlined by the state. “But he just didn’t even want to hear that,” he says. “I’ve just gotten to the point where I’m saying, ‘If you can’t follow the rules, then please don’t come back.’”
Being put in the position of enforcer is stressful, Smith says. “It is very upsetting. You’re shaking after having these conversations with people, because you just don’t know. What if someone got killed because they told them to wear a mask? You worry about it all the time.”
For Smith, wearing a mask indoors isn’t just about complying with the state. It’s about making sure his other customers and employees feel safe. In a survey conducted by Eater Detroit in May, roughly 79 percent of respondents stated that all restaurant staff, both in the kitchen and in the front of house, such as hosts, food runners, and servers, should be required to wear masks. Nearly 55 percent of respondents felt that customers should be required to have their temperature taken before entering a restaurant, and nearly 54 percent felt that patrons should be required to wear a mask prior to receiving their food.
Before the partial reopening of Michigan restaurants, when it was just himself and Reyner working at the restaurant, Smith says he was more understanding of Cafe Muse customers doing curbside pickup without a mask. At this point, though, he’s surprised by people who wander in and claim they don’t yet own a mask, noting that grocery stores and similar establishments have required them by state executive order for quite some time. He keeps a handful of masks on hand and gives them out if patrons don’t have one in their car, at extra cost to the restaurant.
“Now that it’s other customers in the restaurant, we have to be a little bit more careful, because they’re entrusting that we are following the rules, and that we’re going to make sure that other customers are following them,” he says. “It’s not just for us.”
Eater is tracking the impact of the novel coronavirus on the local food industry. Have a story to share? Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• All Michigan Restaurants and Bars Can Open for Dine-In Service on June 8 [ED]
• Face Masks Are Required in Grocery Stores Under Michigan’s Updated Stay-at-Home Order [ED]
• Michigan Woman Charged With Spitting on Cop After Refusing to Wear a Mask in a Grocery Store [ED]
• All Coronavirus Coverage [E]