Eat + Drink » On the Table

Restaurant Mask Drama

Servers bear the brunt of mask resentment



Manuel Martinez was only 20 minutes into his shift bussing tables at Golden Harvest last weekend when he spotted a customer walking in without a mask. When Martinez asked if he had one, the man turned hostile.

"He said, 'Fuck you guys," and just turned around and left," says Martinez. In 16 years of restaurant work in Humboldt, he says people getting angry at the house rules is a new part of a job he otherwise enjoys. "I'm just getting used to it at this point."

Restaurants with plans approved by the county have been allowed to open for dine-in service since May 29, so long as they adhere to social distancing and sanitization guidelines, including masks for staff. While guests are allowed to remove their masks at their tables to eat and drink, they're required to wear facial coverings upon entrance, while waiting for seating and when moving around the restaurant. The regulations are clear and bolstered by Gov. Gavin Newsom's June 18 statewide order requiring facial coverings. But there are still restaurant patrons who balk at the inconvenience, some of whom unload their frustrations on staff who are already shouldering the stress of added protocols and health concerns.

When Golden Harvest opened up for dine-in service, Martinez says he hesitated but ultimately came back because he didn't want to leave his coworkers hanging. Once he jumped back in and got a handle on the protocols — including sanitizing, offering masks to those without them and taking temperatures at the door — he felt better about the risks, even if the added work leaves him more exhausted than usual at the end of a shift. "I consider myself healthy so I wasn't too concerned about getting the virus myself, but it's a little concern dealing with some customers."

Most folks who come in, he says, understand the safety measures and even those who huff a little generally keep their manners. "But there's some customers," one or two a day, he says, "that don't understand the mask thing and complain about how are they gonna eat. And we explain it to them but some people just get mad about it." He recalls another customer on Wednesday who wanted to enter with his shirt pulled up over his mouth but reluctantly retrieved a mask from his car. When he grumbled during the temperature check, another customer tried to explain that the measures are to keep everyone safe, which lead to an argument. "It got bad," says Martinez. "It was kinda ugly but it stopped."

Tina Carver has worked the front of the house at Brick and Fire for more than five years but has been serving tables more than half her life. As much as she loves the work and the regulars who have "kept us afloat," she had strong concerns about serving dine-in customers. She explains, "I have an immunosuppressed child at home" whose condition and related medications make him vulnerable enough that even before the pandemic, when she or her husband returned from a trip outside, they'd immediately strip down, bag their clothing and take "a Silkwood shower." When someone in her household catches a cold, they use a designated sick room, gloves and masks to protect her son. "COVID," she says, "will kill him."

But Carver also needs a paycheck. "I can't say, 'Hey, sorry! Hire me again when the pandemic's over.' I take precautions. I put on a mask, I glove up and I get it done."

Regulars are dutifully wearing masks but Carver says out-of-towners, often drawn by high Yelp rankings and Diners, Drive-ins and Dives fame, are the ones causing drama and complaining they don't have to wear masks where they're from. "It's maybe twice a week I get told to fuck off and then they just walk away." While it's stressful, she says a career in the service industry prepares you for anything and backup from her coworkers is a comfort. Besides, she says, "I'm a Jersey girl — nobody scares me."

They do frustrate her, though. "I don't understand why it's such a big oppression. People want so badly to be oppressed — as if putting a piece of cloth over your face is tantamount to joining the Taliban. ... There's a lot of Karens out there."

Thirty-year restaurant veteran Maryann Ruchte says at 68, she knows she's higher risk for COVID-19 but she loves her job and missed her work family at the Alibi. In the two weeks the restaurant and bar has been open since shutting down in March, visitors have been her main concern, too. Sometimes she hears they're visiting and thinks, "OK, so you just came from a hot-spot area to our little not-such-a-hot-spot. ... I feel comfortable serving my own community — not so much people from Los Angeles."

But she's glad, especially hearing about violence in other cities, that her day shifts have only seen one mask-less man yelling at the staff on his way out. Like at Brick and Fire, her regulars are following the safety measures, grateful to have the place open and to get a taste of normalcy. And even the majority of out-of-towners — even the ones who gripe that the whole pandemic is a hoax — either put on masks or leave. Still, the thought of the usual wave of travelers fleeing the heat of Redding this summer gives her pause.

At Fiesta Grill and Cantina, Esteban Luna, who manages his family's restaurant with his sister Monica, there are signs about wearing masks on the doors, a sanitizing station inside and a plastic barrier at the front desk. And while the majority of customers mind the signs, Luna says a few are either not seeing or willfully ignoring them. Often they jokingly ask how they're supposed to eat with a mask. "Usually, they try belittling one of the servers by saying that," he says.

That many of those opposed to masking seem to be taking cues from our president and making a political statement feels unnecessary to Luna. "We're just trying to keep our business and keep our employees and ourselves safe. ... It kind of wears you down to have these little battles every day." Luna says he feels it's childish and that people who take the masking rules personally don't understand the risk of ignoring them. Health concerns aside, "If someone were to get sick at our business, we would have to live with the stigma ... we would be seen as a place where we're not cleaning or taking our protocols seriously." The financial fallout from lost business, as well as shutting down, could be catastrophic at an already difficult time.

"What the general public doesn't necessarily understand is that, yeah, there may be a lower chance of getting infected [in Humboldt] but our staff meets 100 people per day," says Luna.

The lack of consideration looks to Carver like a new strain of the entitlement she's seen throughout her food service career. To some, she says, "We're servants, we're beneath people."

"This whole pandemic has brought out major issues of classism," she says. "You can't live without us but you don't treat us like people."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal and prefers she/her. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

Comments (6)

Showing 1-6 of 6

Add a comment

Add a comment