On Thursday, May 13, the CDC abruptly announced that fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear face masks indoors, resulting in a fair amount of confusion across the country. Of course, states and counties can disagree, and yesterday the state of California confirmed that it won’t remove masks indoors until the grand reopening slated for June 15; the city and county of San Francisco is following suit. As the SF Department of Public Health (SFDPH) tweeted out, even though 76 percent of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, there are still unvaccinated people at risk. So for SF diners, this was no-news news: It is still mandatory to wear masks indoors, in restaurants, bars, and other food businesses.
San Francisco is currently in the least-restrictive yellow tier, which already had some room for mask confusion. A refresher on the rules: Fully vaccinated individuals are no longer required to wear masks for outdoor dining. Unvaccinated individuals are still recommended to wear masks outdoors. And everyone is still required to wear face masks indoors.
The pre-June 15 interim marks a strange cultural moment for the city, when some people are thrilled to rip their masks off and have an outdoor cocktail, and others are still anxiously double masking to pick up takeout after all of the trauma of the past year. And now restaurants are dealing with mask confusion, having to clarify the guidelines, and in some cases come up with their own policies. Eater SF checked in with a few local restaurants, to ask how they’re feeling about the whole masks-on versus masks-off scene.
“We feel like we as a people are not ready to return to a normal lifestyle yet,” says Chef Kasem Saengsawang from Farmhouse Kitchen Thai. He says that masks “make us feel safer. Our customers appreciate it … the CDC was just too fast. Everybody was in shock.” Farmhouse has experienced a few more diners trying to walk in without masks, including a large group of young people that came into the Mission location, refused to put masks on, pulled up the CDC announcement on their phones, and ultimately walked out, leaving the staff worrying about a one-star Yelp review. And the restaurant has been getting emails accusing them of not understanding the CDC advice, to which they respond that they’re following the county guidelines.
Farmhouse is keeping its existing mask policies in place, keeping signs up, and reminding guests. Per the yellow tier rules, they’ve also started asking outdoor diners if they’re vaccinated and asking for proof of vaccination. “How do we know that people are vaccinated?” Saengsawang says. “It’s another policy we have to come up with … it’s another thing the city is dumping on us.”
Gillian Shaw at Black Jet Baking Co. says she feels lucky to live in the tiny village neighborhood of Bernal Heights, where despite some uneasiness in the city at large, her regulars are largely mask-wearers. When she saw the CDC update, she immediately jumped online and started spinning through the state and city health sites. For a small bakery, which specializes in takeout and doesn’t have much seating, she says, “It didn’t really change anything for us at all. That’s a long way away, in my brain. I’m just sort of a day-to-day, week-to-week person, so that doesn’t change anything for us.” The baristas did deal with a few incidents over the weekend, with maskless people who demand sticky buns and say “But I’m vaccinated,” which the busy bakery doesn’t have the capacity to check.
Black Jet hung up a new sign and posted a reminder on social media. “Just from talking to my staff, we feel that if we have to wear them, the customer should have to wear them,” Shaw says. “That feels right. That feels like the sane answer. If I have to wear this mask for safety, then the customer should have to wear this mask for safety, too.”
“I felt optimistic, like everybody else … ” says Christ Aivaliotis, co-owner of the Kon-Tiki and Palmetto in Oakland. “It was a mix of things. I was excited because I thought that maybe we had reached a true turning point.” But Aivaliotis first learned about the CDC announcement when he got a text from an anxious team member; he immediately fired off an email to his health inspector in Alameda county. Aivaliotis says despite the CDC versus state confusion, the restaurants have felt the same: most people are respectful, a few people get salty, and in his opinion, it’s still the same people who don’t want to wear masks. His primary concern was his staff and checking in to make sure they felt safe. The only thing Aivaliotis’s bars are getting slightly more relaxed about is constantly policing outdoor diners to pull up masks when servers drop some cocktails or fries on the table, which restaurants have long described as a losing battle.
But after working as a bartender for more than 10 years, Aivaliotis says he’s used to asking people to do something they might not want to do and dealing with some antics. “In my career, that could involve putting your shirt back on. To me, policing has always kind of been part of the job?” he says. “We’re pretty adept at dealing with any kind of situation.”