Restaurants and Masks: Best Tips for Wearing Them, Enforcing Policies
Restaurants are community hubs, a place for gatherings and conversation, with dine-in purchases commanding a sizable portion of all sales before pandemic protocols. Quarantine lockdowns have left many restaurants with reduced internal capacity or reliant entirely on off-premise orders to remain in business. As the medical world has shifted their understanding, restrictions have eased to allow customers to visit with the proper precautions: masks. Unfortunately, restaurants and masks have become a contention point, with disgruntled customers venting their frustration publicly. Science tells us that masks help reduce the spread of COVID, so how do restaurateurs balance public safety and customer satisfaction?
The Controversy Around Masks
Failure is an accepted element of scientific exploration and one that, unfortunately, has caused some confusion in the world. Part of the scientific method is learning what works and what doesn’t and allowing the facts to shape your belief through trial and error. It’s through that process that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) scrambled to respond to the coronavirus when it first began spreading with limited data to understand how it was transmitted and contracted.
At the beginning of the quarantine, masks weren’t considered necessary in stemming the virus. As the medical community learned more, they evolved their philosophies to emphasize masks’ importance as a highly effective preventative measure. Unfortunately, many remain skeptical of masks, citing various reasons, from conflicting messaging to personal autonomy.
The Efficacy of Masks
Since the onset of the pandemic, researchers worldwide have studied the effectiveness of masks and have consistently found them as useful in minimizing viral spread. While studies are still ongoing as to which type of mask is most successful or differences in how masks prevent transmission from the user, the consensus stands that they work. Last month, the CDC Director admitted that masks are a better deterrent to the coronavirus than a vaccine for the foreseeable future. Covering your face works and protects others from the potential of asymptomatic spread.
Masks are already required by ordinance in any place that features public gatherings around the U.S.; they’re likely already a presence in your restaurant. The first obstacle between restaurants and masks is making sure that you’re prepared for whatever happens. Secure PPE that your staff might need to provide masks for unprepared guests and disarm difficult situations with customers unwilling to wear them.
Your Guest’s Arrival
Picture your operation on a typical Friday evening several years ago. You may have had some perceived notion of how many guests might arrive but forgot the big game was coming up this weekend. You have a surplus of patrons, but your staff is doing an excellent job. In the past, that scenario would likely look at managing expectations and streamlining your operation for efficiencies. While those are still important distinctions, the coronavirus has given us all a new set of obstacles: how do you keep everyone safe?
Many restaurants have turned to their table management solution in response to restrictions to capacity, a technology designed for seating, waitlisting, and more. Because of the challenges with restaurants and masks, some operators have instituted a waitlisting policy that requires guests to check in first. This helps stem the overall traffic flow while providing a layer of protection against overcrowding during a viral outbreak. Knowing how many guests might arrive allows you to prepare, and with contactless tech like SMS texting, you can even notify guests of your mask policies.
Now that your guests have arrived train your front-of-house staff to check that everyone is wearing their mask. Whether it’s patrons or staff, make sure that you have a supply of masks if someone loses theirs in transit. While some customers may remain resistant, stocking up gives you peaceful options to subdue conflicts before they arise.
Lead By Example
Leadership is an important step for restaurants and masks alike. In any business, employees are more likely to comply if they follow by example. This allows you to ensure that your staff remains compliant because they know you’re doing the same thing. By developing that culture, you can build a team that wears masks with no problems. Your entire staff is envoys as to the right way to wear a mask and when and how to do that.
Cover Your Nose
Speaking of “the right way,” make sure that everyone is wearing a mask properly. While some may disagree on this, the CDC has some particularly direct guidelines. Most importantly, cover your nose. COVID-19 is a respiratory infection, so protecting all air circulating orifices is critical in preventing viral spreading.
What To Do With Unruly Guests
You’ve taken all the right steps, stocked up on disposable masks to hand out just in case, blocked off the right amount of tables, and have a healthy supply of sanitation. You’re leading through example, and your crew is all happily compliant with your mask policy. Customer service is integral to establishing guest loyalty, with 90% of guests checking reviews before dining out. Bad diner reactions could result in poor reviews, which is an entirely new set of challenges. What do you do with guests that refuse?
While signs like “no shoes, no shirt, no service” have remained an acceptable part of our culture, mask policies, have resulted in furious social media debates that depict customers who refuse to wear masks as a nuisance, if not public menace. The phenomenon of aggressive anti-mask protesters is nothing new but has become so commonplace and, at times, violent that the National Restaurant Association (NRA) has put together training for restaurateurs looking for help with conflict management.
Between the NRA and the CDC, the basic recommendations are to appease, don’t engage, and have a plan for your staff or other guests’ safety in case a customer is potentially hostile. Specifically, these suggestions are to avoid continued interaction with customers who have made threats of violence. Just like with other customer service challenges, work to de-escalate and offer opportunities for guest appeasement.
Should You Call Security or the Police?
Calling for outside intervention should be avoided at all costs, but even asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 are a threat to public health. Fortunately, many states in the U.S. have mask mandates, which are meant to provide a modicum of legal protection to businesses who encounter this exact problem. Make calling for outside assistance your nuclear option, the choice you make last, and certainly least, minimize conflict. Keep in mind, though, that while you want every customer to be happy, it’s impossible to reconcile individual liberty with public safety. Ideally, you want all of your guests to be happy and healthy.
Restaurants and Masks — Conclusion
Under normal circumstances, businesses have the potential to lose billions due to poor customer service. These are extraordinary times that call for outstanding measures — like wearing masks! Your patience is required to make the best decision to satisfy the highest percentage of customers, which means that you have an obligation to public safety. You can use mask mandates to your advantage by explaining that the fines you could suffer if you’re caught in non-compliance. Try that before any more extreme measures. Remember also that your angry anti-mask customer is likely not representative of what the rest of your guests want.
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About the Author
Syd was a content marketing specialist, which are fancy words for writing pretty to tell a good story. He likes writing things about food, drinks, and music. He’s a musician himself, a father of two, and loves his wife a whole lot. At home, like the rest of the world right now, he’s finding time to play with the kids and create art.