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San Francisco Restaurants Grapple With Law Requiring All Customers to Wear Masks

Restaurants are required to kick the maskless out, a mandate that some restaurant owners say is an overstep

Workers in SF restaurants are legally required to refuse service to patrons with uncovered faces
Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

San Francisco’s rule requiring face coverings for most activities outside the home officially went into effect as of 11:59 p.m. on Friday, April 17, but enforcement of the mandate didn’t begin until 8 a.m. on Tuesday, April 22. As part of the rule, which is intended to slow the spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) restaurants, grocery stores, and other essential businesses are required to “refuse service to anyone not wearing a face covering,” San Francisco officials say, a requirement that’s been met with mixed reactions from the city’s food industry.

Nick Cho, the co-owner of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters (which has locations in Berkeley and San Francisco’s Cow Hollow neighborhood), said in a series of tweets Tuesday that while he understands “the public health reasons” requiring businesses to refuse maskless patrons, the rule “is an overstep” and “requiring employees of essential businesses to discriminate is wrong.”

“What’s the probability that, being told they’re being denied service, the no-mask patron will speak more, more loudly, and in closer proximity to more people, especially the employee who’s raising the issue?” Cho asks. “This will actually create higher risk for many essential business workers,” he tweets, “and be counterproductive to the spirit of the ordinance...let the police do the enforcing. Don’t deputize low-paid foodservice employees and risk their health.”

It’s a problem that Bernadette Melvin, the owner of Noe Valley neighborhood spot Bernie’s has already encountered first hand. As of 10:20 Wednesday morning, she tells Eater SF that she’s had a visit from the San Francisco Police Department to confirm that people are masked, as well as eight customers who came in with uncovered faces, all of whom “either shrugged their shoulders or claimed they couldn’t find” any sort of covering.

“So I asked them to leave,” she said, and “half came back with coverings. All were annoyed.”

Melvin isn’t the only restaurant owner who was visited by the SFPD regarding the face coverings. According to Cho, “they sent uniformed SFPD to advise our staff on Saturday,” about the rule, which he says means, “Police are suddenly all over the city. This is not good.”

But police might be what’s required to keep patrons from tripping out on workers who attempt to enforce the rule. Another coffee shop owner, who asked that their name not be used, told Eater SF Wednesday that a patron who was informed about the mask order yelled at the worker who told them about it, and announced, “I’m never coming back here again!”

Things didn’t escalate beyond that, but if they did, says Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association lobbying group, workers shouldn’t try to manage things themselves, but should then call the cops.

“This is an unusual period, and we’re all functioning adults,” Thomas tells Eater SF, noting that as opposed to some cities, San Francisco’s residents have made a significant effort to observe measures to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. “In other circumstances, if a patron was behaving non-functionally, we wouldn’t hesitate to ask them to leave.”

Citing patrons who have consumed too much alcohol, Thomas says that “we as business owners have always had some uncomfortable situations, but we have the ability to shut those down.” And as with those situations, if there are issues with folks who refuse to leave over face coverings, workers should “call 911, not get in a fight.”

A lack of city-mandated mask regulations is one of the reasons Outer Richmond restaurant Cassava shut its doors, co-owner Yuka Ioroi told Eater SF last week. When contacted Wednesday morning, she, too, brought up the scenario of an intoxicated patron, saying that restaurants should treat the face covering rules the same way. “Be nice, explain the rule, and ask everybody to cover up.” However, says Ioroi, the message should always come from management, not from hourly employees. “If we’re saying that all these ‘essential workers’ are heroes, we shouldn’t be making them do things like this,” Ioroi says. “It’s not part of their job description to enforce the law. That should come from management or the owners.”

As the eponymous owner of Bernie’s, Melvin has been the one to deliver the message to her patrons, like it or not. “I hate having to tell people the obvious,” Melvin says, but she says she believes that “for some reason” her loyal patrons “think that I, of all people, am gonna let them get away” with not following the mask rule. “No, no, no,” she says. “There’s no way that I will risk my business being closed.”


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