Mask Rules Applied Differently – Transylvania County, NC
Last updated 7/27/2020 at 1:54pm
Amidst the prolonged phase two of reopening Gov. Roy Cooper has mandated for North Carolinians, Brevard restaurants are grappling with how to approach the recommendation that folks should wear a mask when out in public at all times.
For if a restaurant aims to feed and hydrate its customers, how do they do that while insisting their customers wear masks?
In a recent interview, Transylvania Public Health director Elaine Russell made it clear what the guidelines were for restaurants when it comes to wearing masks, yet area restaurants’ approach to enforcing the mandate are varying.
“The goal of the executive orders that have been issued by Gov. Cooper with public health guidance is that unless you are actively in the process of eating or consuming your beverage, that you should be wearing a face covering or mask,” Russell said. “If you go in and order your food and you’re sitting there waiting for your food to come in to your table, then it would be appropriate for you to be wearing your mask while you are in a waiting mode.
“Once the food comes to the table, it’s understandable – you’ve got to take the mask off to be consuming your food or your beverage…To take a sip of your beverage as you’re waiting on your food, pull the mask aside, partake in the beverage and then put the mask back in place.”
Russell said all employees at a restaurant should be wearing a mask unless they have a medical exemption.
“Again, these are all recommendations,” she said. “We do strongly encourage people to follow the guidance of the executive orders for this because masking does make a difference in transmission.”
Of the restaurants The Transylvania Times spoke with there seems to be three different methods of compliance with the mask mandate: restaurants that take a hard line with face coverings and refuse entrance to the establishment if customers aren’t wearing a mask; restaurants that are more flexible with the recommendations, giving customers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to medical exemptions; and restaurants that don’t actively enforce the mandate at all.
Rocky’s Grill and Soda Shop is one of the restaurants that holds a hard line with face covering enforcement.
Restaurant owner Dee Dee Perkins said she closed her business down for two months during the “flatten the curve” phase of the pandemic and does not want to risk having to close again in the event that an employee or customer gets sick while at her establishment.
“We want to protect our community, and we want to protect our employees,” she said.
Rocky’s enforces the rule at their door, with an employee who greets customers before entering the building. If the customer is not wearing a mask, the employee will ask the customer to wear one before entering, or offer them a complimentary mask.
If the customer refuses, Perkins said the customer is not allowed entry.
Reactions to this method are “a mix,” according to Perkins. “Overall, most people comply. If they don’t have a mask, they generally will take it and put it on. Body language tells you they don’t really like it but most do to comply.”
She said “without fail” at least one person a day reacts defiantly to the request, but most people are “pleasant” and support the rule.
At Square Root, manager Jacob Pinter said enforcing the mask mandate is similar to enforcing only service animals to be allowed at the restaurant. Pinter said it comes down to what he was willing to assume about a person.
“You can’t really assume,” he said. “If you ask somebody more than, ‘Is that a service animal? What duties does it perform?’ At that point you’re going against their human rights. So, if you take the same token and apply it to masks, whereas these people may have autism or they may have a breathing disorder that is exacerbated by wearing a mask in the heat.
“You know, you don’t know that, and I don’t know how much you are liable and able to tell or ask when it comes to this.”
Maya’s Grill employee Estrella Jose Antonio said the restaurant prefers customers to wear masks when they come in and are checking out at the register, but some people choose to ignore the requests.
“Some people, they don’t really care about (wearing masks) and you know they will walk in and we say they have to wear a mask,” Antonio said. “They will ask if that it’s a requirement, and we tell them no, but we would prefer if you would wear a mask, but you don’t have to. But they still ignore the mask policy.
Both Maya’s Grill and the Square Root said they required their employees, both front of house and back, to wear masks at all times while working.”
Twin Flames owner Lynley Todd does not require or enforce mask wearing in her restaurant, but said she is following all of the government mandated requirements for table spacing, stringent sanitization and signage display.
“I have the signage posted, as I’m required to have, but once they walk in and they ask me, ‘Do I need to put it on,’ I say, ‘No,’” Todd said. “I think that it just doesn’t make any sense.
“We have the social distancing. People are keeping away from each other, and if they walk into the building and they are standing 6 feet apart and the tables are 6 feet apart, that’s what the whole thing is for. That’s why we keep social distancing.”
Todd said she believes it is too difficult to do the hard labor of restaurant work while wearing a mask and said she herself becomes “instantaneously nauseous” when wearing a mask, an issue she said reaches back to her days working in construction.
In particular, working over a hot griddle with glasses on, Todd said, is just not doable. At Twin Flames, Todd said her employees have limited contact with customers as well.
The restaurant is now counter service only, where customers order behind a Plexiglas shield, and Todd said she usually cooks the food and runs it out herself.
“We have limited contact,” Todd said. “We’re very fast paced and we have limited contact, so I just don’t think that we are as much of a threat as somebody that’s going to be a waitress that’s going to go over there and chatting with them. We have a different set up here.”
As far as Russell is concerned, masks are one of the three tools at public health officials’ disposal for containing the spread of the virus, along with social distancing and hand washing, and that, for now, government officials are hoping for voluntary compliance.
“All of our businesses, especially our restaurants, are working very, very hard to survive,” she said. “I think that puts our businesses in a catch 22. That’s why I would encourage people to step forward and voluntarily play ball with the public health guidance and the executive orders and wear the mask. Protect yourself and don’t put that business in the difficult spot of having to ask you to do something while they're trying to help their business survive.” Russell said.
Technically, she said businesses could be held liable for noncompliance with the mask mandate.
“I think that would be a very sad day for businesses to have that burden put on top of them, on top of all the other burdens they’re already trying to navigate, with staffing and the finances of operations in the complicated times of COVID,” she said.
Russell said her department has received a few complaints about noncompliance issues related to COVID-19 executive orders and her department has health education staff for outreach to businesses and offer support related to the three Ws: wash your hands, wait 6 feet apart and wear a mask.