As Richmond-area restaurants conclude their first full week of being able to operate in Phase Three, among the thorniest dilemmas they face is how, when or whether to enforce the state’s mask mandate.
They’re balancing the risk of a pandemic against the potential survival of businesses where sales have plummeted and dealing with the reality that customer complaints could hurt business no matter where they land on the issue.
“Some people aren’t aware of [the mask requirement] or they’re in shock that we’re enforcing it,” said Richmond restaurant owner Kunal Shah, who co-owns downtown eateries Kabana Rooftop, Nama and Switch.
Gov. Ralph Northam issued a statewide order May 26 requiring masks to be worn inside all public buildings, citing the ample evidence from health officials that wearing one helps prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The Virginia Department of Health is tasked with enforcing the order, though both it and the governor have said they’re taking a hands-off or educational approach to enforcement.
That’s shifted the primary mask enforcement responsibility to business owners and employees, with both offices recommending businesses turn away those who won’t wear a mask.
“It’s hard for us at a time like this; we’re in need of the business,” Shah said.
Still, he said, although the majority of diners are complying with the order, employees at his restaurants have had to ask people to leave for refusing to wear a mask.
“We have to respect the guests that are inside and their health. We have to enforce it,” Shah said. “It’s tough.”
And mask wearing, while shown to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and many other diseases, has become increasingly political. A late May, Quinnipiac University poll found that the majority of Democrats support mask-wearing requirements compared to a minority of Republicans.
A Pew Research Study a month later found a similar political divide with 76% of people who lean Democrat reporting they wear masks in stores and businesses compared with 53% of people who lean Republican.
In the 5,000 complaints reported to the VDH hotline in the past six weeks for mask, social distancing or other phased business opening violations, Northam’s name appears nearly 400 times, including in reports of times Northam has been on TV or in public unmasked, political potshots and complaints about masks being required.
As required under Phase Three (and the previous phases) guidelines, Shah has signage offering public health reminders posted at his restaurants’ entrances, including ample signs reminding customers that face coverings are required.
He’s following the rest of the guidelines, too, including pre-shift temperature checks for employees, the enhanced surface and bathroom cleaning required every 60 minutes, and deeper table and check presenter cleaning done between seatings.
To ensure there’s enough time to get it all done, Shah and many other Richmond restaurant owners have adopted the state’s recommended policy of switching to a reservation-only system, as he’s done at Kabana Rooftop and Nama.
Conflicts between customers and restaurant employees attempting to enforce the mask policies are becoming more contentious. Across the country, restaurants in San Francisco, Detroit and Los Angeles have reportedly shut down dine-in service after heated mask confrontations with guests.
Earlier this month, two D.C.-area restaurants, including one in Northern Virginia, reported their employees were verbally or physically assaulted after asking customers to wear masks.
But for restaurant owners, mask wearing isn’t political; it’s survival.
“The impact on my business is not really what’s driving the fear. It’s the safety of my employees, the safety of my family,” said David Bender, who owns Sheppard Street Tavern in the Museum District. “Nobody likes wearing these things; it’s a pain in the butt.”
But Bender said the pain is worth it if it means protecting his staff and family from potential exposure to COVID-19.
“I don’t want to sit at home for 14 days,” he said, referring to the recommended quarantine time if he or his staff were exposed. “I’d have to shut down my restaurant.”
Bender, like most other local restaurant owners, has found that the majority of customers willingly comply with the mask order, though customers often have to be reminded to put it on or told that having one in the car is not the same as having one on their person. Bender said his restaurant regulars have been helpful with enforcement, too, by shouting out reminders to diners who may forget on their way to the bathroom.
“A lot of people who’ve gone out [to restaurants since they’ve opened], they don’t want to mess that up by their bars and restaurants shutting down again,” he said. “We only had one vehement anti-masker. He stormed out because he and his friend were asked to wear masks.”
The customer who stormed out claimed a disability prevented him from mask wearing, Bender said, though the U.S. Department of Justice has said that the Americans with Disabilities Act “does not provide a blanket exemption to people with disabilities from complying with legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operations.”
The ADA has gone on to recommend people with legitimate disabilities or medical conditions that might prevent mask wearing — such as individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder, autism or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — be allowed to wear a loose scarf or face shield as opposed to a mask, or for those individuals to opt for takeout dining.
In Virginia restaurants, customers are required to wear masks and practice social distancing when entering a restaurant or in any common space of the restaurant. But wearing a mask during a meal is next to impossible. Customers can remove their masks while seated at the table, but must put them back on if they get up to use the restroom.
Restaurant employees are required to wear masks at all times.
Restaurants across Virginia have been struggling financially since dining rooms were shuttered in mid-March. Some switched to takeout-only models, while others closed entirely, waiting to see what the state’s phased reopenings would bring.
Phase One began in mid-May for most of the state, with Richmond entering it in late May. It allowed restaurants to open their patios but kept dining rooms closed. Phase Two came in early June and allowed restaurants to use 50% of their dining room seating with 6 feet of distance between tables, and Phase Three allowed restaurants to use all of their seating up to 250 seats, with 6 feet of distance between tables.
A spokeswoman for Northam said he remains committed to a cautious, data-driven approach and has no plans to relax restrictions at this time.
Moving into new phases is optional for business owners, and many local restaurants are still in Phase One. Some are still temporarily closed, and others are still offering takeout only.
Regardless, for many independent restaurant owners, there’s little difference between Phase Two and Three.
“Unless you’re a huge restaurant, Phase Three is no different than Phase Two,” said Steven Gooch, who owns The Stables and The Franklin Inn restaurants in the Museum District.
Shah and Bender concurred: “Phase Three doesn’t really mean anything to us,” Bender said.
The one piece of Phase Three that local restaurant owners had been eager for was bar seating, which was originally allowed when Northam outlined in mid-June what Phase Three would look like in Virginia when it began July 1. But hours before Phase Three began, the governor issued an early evening change keeping the bar areas of restaurants closed.
“When Northam took out the bar seating Tuesday night [before Phase Three began at midnight] ... you have to wonder if these guys have any clue how it is to run a business,” Gooch said.
Gooch noted that for one of his restaurants, The Franklin Inn, which is a small corner pub in the Museum District, bar seating is a third of all the seating.
After adding in the 6 feet of distance between parties, “I’m down to four tables,” he said of The Franklin Inn.
Bar seating is 20% of the seating at his other restaurant, The Stables, and at both places, Gooch said, he’s had to get creative to keep customers away from the space they naturally gravitate to by adding plants and displays along the bars and removing chairs.
Shah said that at Kabana Rooftop, signs are posted along the bar, but still it’s difficult to keep people from congregating there, even with no seating, since it’s a place they’re used to going. Also, many customers aren’t aware that using the bar area isn’t allowed in Phase Three.
Gooch said many restaurants owners aren’t aware of the last-minute change restricting bar seating either.
“I’m getting reports from all over town that we’re one of the few places actually not using their bar,” he said. “It’s almost like you have to do it if everyone else is doing it.”
Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky pointed to guidance from “public health experts at the Virginia Department of Health” as well as “experiences of other states” in the governor’s late change closing bars.
Still, the loss of seating is a loss of revenue for restaurant owners, and the loss of bar seating means many restaurants are still operating at 50% or less capacity.
“If you’re at 50% business, you’re not making any money,” Gooch said. And many restaurant owners, Gooch included, found that takeout business slowed significantly when dining rooms opened.
“My fear is that the governor thinks that restaurants are just fine,” he said. “We’re not.”
And as restaurants attempted to navigate this “brave new world,” as Bender puts it, where masks are required, bar areas are closed, reservations may be required for dining in, and some restaurants are operating in whole different phases than others, it’s often the restaurant staff caught in the crosshairs.
“We’re already kind of the whipping post,” said Martha Childress, a server at Azzurro, a restaurant in Henrico County’s River Road Shopping Center. “Now with everything being different, you go out and people are trying to tell you to put a mask on, and they’re having a bad day.”
Childress said most customers have been understanding, and the restaurant regulars have been supportive of all of the policies, albeit eager to return to bar seating. But there are customers who take out their frustrations on restaurant staff. Azzurro has added temperature checks for patrons before dining, a precaution supported by most customers, according to Childress and restaurant management.
Earlier this month, one customer became irritated about the temperature check when his logged in at over 100 degrees after repeated checks and resets of the thermometer. He refused to leave. While he did agree to wear a mask until he was seated at the table, ultimately there was little restaurant staff could do.
“They know if we’re strict about it, all they have to do is write a bad review and we’re even,” she said.
Indeed, restaurants have long been inundated with negative online reviews from customers upset about just about anything, and a quick survey of online review sites reveals that this pandemic has been no different.
Restaurants across town have been dinged with one-star reviews for not offering takeout when it was OK to do so, for opting to require reservations (or not), and for enforcing mask policies (or not).
And at 35%, complaints about restaurants not following phased opening guidelines account for the second-largest percentage of overall complaints in the Richmond area to the VDH hotline. There were nearly as many complaints directed at employees as there were about customers in overall complaints. When looking at just restaurant complaints, there were four times as many about restaurant employees as restaurant customers.
But Childress said employees always wear masks at Azzurro. And when everyone is seated, they’re the only ones.
“You look around sometimes and you realize you’re in a room with 50 people and nobody is wearing a mask,” she said.