reopening

The Ongoing Mask ‘Debate’ Is Everything Wrong With Restaurant Customers

Look how easy it is to wear one! Photo: Sergio Flores/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This week, Eater’s Atlanta outpost reported that many restaurant owners are “pleading” with their customers to wear face masks. This comes on the heels of a widely circulated report that a taco stand in Los Angeles closed because customers refused to wear masks. And another from Detroit. And one from Arkansas. Around the country, similar situations have been playing out for weeks — likely longer — and even a cursory search on social media brings up dozens of similar stories from restaurant employees who have confronted customers who refuse to wear masks in the face of a COVID-19 pandemic that, yesterday alone, was responsible for the deaths of at least 948 Americans.

That the country is filled with people who refuse to believe or even acknowledge the science on mask-wearing — mask mandates slow transmission rates and reduce deaths; mask-wearing has already prevented hundreds of thousands of new cases; 30,000 new deaths could be avoided if everyone regularly wears masks — is a sadly predictable state of affairs. That the country is filled with entitled consumers who actively flout conventional wisdom or social grace for the sake of their own comfort is also predictable for anyone who has ever worked, or even spent much time, inside restaurants.

I’m not here to advocate against going out. Restaurants need all the support they can get right now, and if people feel comfortable going — clearly, many do — I am not the person who will try to dissuade them. What’s so difficult to understand is the absurd sense of entitlement that allows a customer to believe a mask is in any way an actual burden, or that wearing one to protect the welfare of workers is a problem. Masks are cheap; wearing one is very, very easy.

The restaurant experience, of course, has long been predicated on the idea of a social contract. Certain behavior is expected from everyone involved. Alas, it is no secret that the prevailing two-class structure within restaurants — the working class and the customer class — allows for one set of people to actively flout these conventions with no real risk of consequences. Customers go out of their way to under-tip. They make ridiculous requests just to see if staff will acquiesce to their unreasonable demands. This particular diner apparently travels with her own bell to get servers’ attention. All of that behavior is obviously rude (and the bell is so ingeniously obnoxious that it demands some degree of special recognition), but none of it is dangerous, exactly. A customer who refuses to wear a mask is very different.

The social contract has changed in the most straightforward of ways: By going to a restaurant now, you agree to take reasonable measures to avoid making workers sick. They, in turn, agree to do the same. To argue against any of this is to simply say you do not care about the welfare of other people. You do not care if someone else gets sick, becomes unable to work, or worse. By refusing to wear a mask, you say that your perceived comfort is more important than another human being’s safety. (It goes without saying that workers and owners who don’t wear masks, or who wear them incorrectly, are also breaking this contract.)

Any infection in a restaurant setting will quickly get out of hand. In Albany this week, six new virus cases at two different restaurants ballooned into 15 confirmed cases among employees as both restaurants were forced to shut down.

Many areas have, quite understandably, mandated mask-wearing while in public — although the people left to regulate those rules are the restaurant workers themselves. The same two-class structure pushes workers into yet another new role: trying to convince people to do the right thing when they have already ignored all of the available evidence. What hope does a well-meaning restaurant manager have of finally changing the minds of these types of people?

The obvious advice, given the overwhelming scientific and cultural consensus, is to tell these customers, “Just wear a mask.” But that line of obvious reasoning probably won’t work on ardent mask-avoiders. It also doesn’t go far enough. Maybe: Don’t go out in public. Don’t interact with the general population. In fact, just go away. Because you — the person who wants to create an unnecessary confrontation with people who just want to do their jobs safely — are the problem. The longer you avoid people who are willing to take even the most basic of safety precautions, the sooner the rest of us will be able to go back to living our lives.