(NEW YORK) — Amid restaurant closures, changing rules and regulations, worker shortages, supply chain issues that lead to price hikes and more, during the COVID-19 crisis restaurants in the U.S. have faced challenges at every turn.
The latest hurdle has been dealing with rising tensions over masks and vaccine mandates during the pandemic.
While the CDC and many states have laid out guidelines and regulations for dining, the burden of enforcing the protocols often falls on the shoulders of individual businesses and the hosts, servers and managers, resulting in an influx of difficult, awkward and at times, dangerous interactions with disgruntled customers.
“It’s been almost a 24/7 job of keeping up with the regulatory changes — the city, the state, the federal government all issue different regulations – so particularly for restaurants in New York it has been a tough job to keep up,” restaurant and hospitality legal expert Carolyn Richmond, co-chair of Fox Rothschild Hospitality Practice Group, told “GMA.”
She added that it’s been “an increased labor cost to make sure somebody is at the door checking.”
These challenges have been widespread, according to reports from New York to Texas and Hawaii.
Hawaii restaurant owner Javier Barberi of Down the Hatch and Mala Tavern in Maui said they have had to hire additional staff and security to deal with the situation.
Barberi told “GMA” that while adapting to state and local mandates the already tense situation of asking their hosts to check vaccination status has been exacerbated recently by stressful customer interactions.
Under the Maui Safer Outside guidelines, unvaccinated customers can choose to dine outdoors, but proof of vaccination is required for indoor dining. Oahu’s Safe Access program takes the regulation a step further, asking customers for proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for both indoor and outdoor dining.
“We’ve had absolute nightmare scenarios at the hostess stand,” Barberi said. “It’s so stressful. I’ve had staff crying after customers yell at them over the vaccination policy and say they can’t work like this or don’t want to come in the next day — but we are following what our government asks of us because we could get shut down or fines.”
Barberi said one customer became combative with the front of house team after his party was denied indoor dining access because a guest was not fully vaccinated. The customer “started losing it on our host,” he said. “ and a A 20-year-old woman should not have to be prepared to handle a situation like this.”
Encounters like these have forced him to hire additional security, he said.
“We’ve had to hire additional security, which doesn’t look good to customers because this is a nice, formal restaurant and not what you want to see when you first arrive,” he explained. “Now we have to hire a male host, additional security and who pays for it? … these things aren’t free. There’s no restaurant relief left, there’s no government assistance coming from the PPP.”
With tensions reaching an inflection point, similar scenes have played out in other states such as New York.
Earlier this month a hostess at Carmine’s, an Italian restaurant in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was reportedly assaulted by three customers after she asked for proof of vaccination — which is required of restaurants by law and if they fail to comply to check patrons’ vaccine status can result in fines over $1,000.
“Three women brutally attacked our hosts without provocation, got arrested and charged for their misconduct, and then, over the last several days, had their lawyer falsely and grossly misrepresent their acts of wanton violence in a cynical attempt to try to excuse the inexcusable,” Carmine’s owner Jeffrey Bank said in a statement the day he released security footage of the incident.
He continued, “My team members work too hard to serve our guests, work too hard to comply with New York’s vaccination requirements, and still suffer too much from the attack for me to allow these false statements to stand.”
The footage showed a group of six people welcomed upon showing proof of vaccinations and later when three men who were part of the same party arrived and could not show proof of vaccination were told they could not enter given New York law. The previously seated guests, according to Bank and the footage, argued to let their friends inside and as one host returned to the outside station, “three of the women came back outside, attacked our host — and then assaulted both our Asian host and our Latinx host,” according to Bank.
“This attack was entirely unprovoked – the three women launched the attack and continued it, seriously hurting our hosts and requiring our staff and nearby men and women to have to literally tear the women away from our hosts,” Bank said. “Carmine’s staff acted appropriately and professionally. When my employees mess up, I hold us accountable. But when our employees are attacked, I will defend them to the limit.”
Andrew Rigie executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance commented on the incident calling it “abhorrent” and added that there should be punishments in place.
“We’re calling on the City and State of New York to immediately increase penalties for assaulting restaurant workers in New York City in conjunction with enforcement of Covid-19 protocols,” he said.
Staff shortages, supply chain woes
Texas Restaurant Association CEO Emily Williams Knight told “Good Morning America” she’s most worried about staff and labor shortages coupled with elevated consumer behavior.
“There’s been an evolution of customer behavior,” she said. “We have very few, if not any restrictions here in Texas, but the staffing labor challenge with the supply chain is definitely frustrating customers and employees.”
In the last month in Texas, which she says accounts for 50,000 restaurants, Knight said “the hours worked per employee in restaurants, was the highest we’ve ever seen. So the folks that are there are exhausted, they’re working extensive hours and they’re now facing a growing public that is losing patience and not having a perfect experience.”
Although Texas does not have a vaccine mandate, Knight said “we’ve had very little challenge here in Texas around masks.”
Much like New York City and other high-traffic hospitality areas restaurant associations across the country have added measures to explain guest safety and behavior expectations upon arrival at a restaurant — something Knight said prompted the TRA to create “the restaurant promise.”
“It’s a two-way commitment between the consumer and the restaurant, so before you enter on the door, it says, this is what we’re going to do to keep you safe. And this is what we were going to do if you enter the business. And it doesn’t surprise them,” she said.
Ellis Winstanley, owner of El Arroyo in Austin, Texas, told “GMA” that customer traffic has fluctuated — “as the pandemic has ebbed and flowed.”
“I think I think there’s just a lot of tension generally right now — I think you see it in restaurants because restaurants are so public — but I think our staff experiences that more than any other industry does.”
Barberi added that they’re facing backlash from guests who are now “boycotting” theirs and other local restaurants enforcing the vaccination policies.
“It breaks my heart – they’re adhering to the rules of the government ,” he said and that the conflict has a negative impact on customers and restaurants.
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