The Great Cover Up

How the mask debate is playing out in restaurants.

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Texan walks into a Colorado bar. Bartender says, “I’m sorry sir, but you have to wear a mask to enter.” Texan says, “How in the heck am I gonna drink my drink with a mask on?” Bartender says, “You can take the mask off when you sit down.” Texan says, “Let me get this straight. When I sit down, the virus stops spreading somehow?” Bartender says, “I wish there were a punchline to this exchange.” 

It’s a non-joke that’s been playing out since July 17, when Governor Polis mandated masks for all Coloradans over the age of 10. Of course, not everyone was on board. Responses have ranged from strict adherence to a refusal to “police” the order—and like seemingly everything these days, sides have been taken. Some municipalities—Denver among them—have even started to levy fines for noncompliance. Regardless, the divisiveness over the issue has introduced staffers to a whole new brand of awkward guest interaction. Is it fair to ask employees to confront guests? And if so, to what extent? What’s the front of house to do? 

Lorena Cantarovici, owner of Maria Empanada in Denver, has found that communication around masks is key. “My first thing is to protect my employees,” Cantarovici says. She emphasizes keeping others safe and keeps the word, “COVID-19” out of her messaging—after all, everybody knows what’s going on. For the most part, Cantarovici’s customers have been supportive. Taking ample time to educate her staff on the law and current guidelines, as well as making the information on masking as accessible as possible, has resulted in not having a single aggressive response. On the few occasions Cantarovici’s staff have encountered unmasked guests, they politely let them know that food will be delivered outside and can be picked up at a contactless table.

It is definitely a politicized nightmare.

Josh Niernberg, Bin 707 Foodbar, Tacopary and Bin Buger

Josh Niernberg, owner of Bin 707 Foodbar, Tacoparty, and the months-old Bin Burger in Grand Junction, has found the mask debate just that—a debate. “It is definitely a politicized nightmare, so to speak,” Niernberg says, but he realizes the most important thing is to communicate to the customers why they are taking the measures they’re taking.

Public health officials encourage restaurants to frame their procedures around simply following public health guidelines. Danica Lee, Director of Public Health Investigations at the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE) advises restaurants that if they are dealing with unruly customers who refuse to put a mask on, simply decline service. Lee adds that if the issue really turns into a safety concern with the customer, do not continue to press the issue and contact the DDPHE instead.

While restaurants do not risk having their business completely shut down from unmasked diners, Lee stresses that there is the possibility for a citation. If a restaurant does not take any measures to promote compliance, and more than 10 percent of their patrons are not wearing masks when required, this could result in a fine. It’s important to note, however, that Lee says they’re seeing overall good cooperation from businesses. 

Need to vent about your mask horror stories? Or talk about your awesome and compliant customers? Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to askus@diningout.com

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