Mask etiquette

Wednesday, July 22, 2020 - 11:51am

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Illustration by Maggie Wiebe

This summer I have been working as a hostess at a tourist trap restaurant spot on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off of Massachusetts. 

 

EXT. SEAFOOD SHANTY – Clam shack located on Martha’s Vineyard

Three hostesses, one being myself, stand outside the door to their restaurant at a high-top table surrounded by a plexi-glass barrier. Their ears are filled with the sound of chatter from the main street around them, and the hum of engines as boats dock with day visitors in search of a lobster roll. The sun blares down and reflects off the harbor in a sharp, but glistening way. 

Taped to the plexi-glass barrier is a sign that reads in a loud typeface, 

 “NO SHIRT

 NO SHOES

 NO MASK

 NO SERVICE” 

The walkway leading up to us has been divided into two lanes; one for customers who are approaching and the other for those leaving. The shiny, linoleum floor has blaring, bright red arrows painted on the ground in an attempt to traffic customers in and out safely. Still, we knew customers would soon awkwardly shimmy past each other, neglecting our precautious efforts.   

A sign sits at the bottom of the walkway desperately urging customers to wear a mask and send only one  person from their party up to speak with the hostesses.

We stand in the hot sun with our masks sealed across our faces. Our eyes begin to fill with dread as the clock ticks toward 11 a.m., the opening time for our popular and renowned rooftop dining spot, which has faced new limits due to Massachusetts COVID-19 laws. 

Maskless customers lurk around the walkway attempting to meet eyes with one of us.  They endlessly search for any sign of validation that they may get a head start or advance early in their pursuit for a table. 

Many have called ahead to ask the same questions, “Can I make a reservation?”, to which we always reply, “Walk-ins only.” 

“Is the rooftop open?” 

“Yes.” We never fail to quip back.

 “How long is the wait?” 

“Ma’am we open in thirty minutes.”

 “Great! We’re on our way; see you in a bit…” The silence often builds, “What’s your name?” 

I wince. 

They don’t want my name because of my wonderful customer service, but instead so they can use it as a card against me later. Usually, it’s a tactic needed for when they ask to speak to the manager after I reveal  there is now a waitlist to be seated outside. 

 

***

 

10:58 a.m.

The first party pounces. 

Eight people approach us with grimacing smiles. The leader of the party taps on the plexi-glass, leaving dirty fingerprints that I have to eventually wipe away, and laughs, “Like a fishbowl!”

“Could you just pull your mask up for us sir?” We plea as the taped sign slumps in defeat.

“We’re outside! What’s the problem?” They retaliate back. 

 

*** 

 

COVID-19 has drastically changed the way we must function as a society. We’ve seen the horrible consequences of negligence when it comes to protecting ourselves and our health over the past four months. With that being said, I think that we have also learned a lot about ways we can still have some sense of normalcy while also respecting the fact that a pandemic has swept over the world. All sorts of guidelines have been set for different establishments so people can safely enjoy everyday amenities. This summer, I specifically have been directly exposed to and protected by these guidelines.

As a hostess, my job is to greet the people who come to the restaurant, walk them to their tables or put them on the waitlist to contact them once a spot is ready. I answer the phone, sanitize the bathrooms and make small talk with customers about the great weather we have been having that day. It should be simple and enjoyable as I am surrounded by a wonderful staff full of supportive and fun people. 

 

***

 

“How many in your party?” We ask. 

“Just eight… can you put us on the deck?”

“Great, sure! We’ll have to do two tables because six is the maximum allowed.” We smile back with our eyes. 

“Oh, no worries, we don’t mind squeezing eight in.” They say.

We patiently remind the party of eight’s spokesperson that by law we cannot seat them all at the same table. They scowl obnoxiously and report back to the rest of their maskless group.

 

***

 

Like I said, hostessing on the vineyard is a great gig and I have enjoyed it thoroughly. However, factoring in the unavoidable pandemic often turns the hostess stand into the frontline for trench warfare. We find ourselves sheltering behind our plexi-glass barrier, dodging spit particles from stampedes of customers as they come up with “novel solutions” to fit their party of eight at one rooftop table which we had already clearly disclosed, is not allowed. 

 

***

 

“Can we just get your name and phone number for contact tracing?” We ask. 

“You’re kidding me.” The customer replies. 

 

***

 

Often this required part of the conversation is where things really start to go south. 

I’ve noticed that people like to make it a challenge for us to write their information down. They blurt their number out at the speed of light and then watch with menacing eyes as we drown in their contact tracing tsunami. I will say, from behind the glass and a mask, communication is a bit harder —  but not impossible. Yet the second that we ask a customer to repeat their name or number,  all rules are suddenly off the table. They pull down their mask, and even proceed to walk around the plexi-glass barrier to stand right next to us or over our shoulder. They then, to put it kindly, enunciate their number into our face, clear their throat, and smile as if they’ve done us a favor. 

The absolute cherry on top for my entire hostess experience is the goodbyes. People love to strut out of the restaurant, happy as a clam. Maskless and destructive, they always lean in towards us to wish us a, “goodnight,” or slur, “thank you so much girls.” With spit particles flying all over the place, and fear of illness creeping its way into our brain, we are left helplessly to reply at their backs: 

“Please remember your mask next time when you are exiting.”

 

***

 

Everything I experience at work spurs from the pent up frustration from many months of take-out and home cooking. Almost everyone has been craving the dine-in experience of being waited on, served, and cleaned up for while Leon Bridges plays softly in the background. As a result, the second that restaurants were able to open for outdoor dining, people flooded in — desperate to feel like things had gone back to the way they were before. Many were grateful despite the new guidelines, but as I described, others were petty and rude, taking it out on the very people who worked hard to allow them back in their establishment: restaurant owners, managers, and employees.  

The COVID-19 laws implemented by Massachusetts and Michigan for restaurants are effective and very necessary considering the situation at hand. The only harm they could realistically cause is toward the people who run restaurants. This is due to the fact that restaurants typically rely on being as busy as possible and the new rules limit their capacity for dining. Other implemented rules include: customers must wear a mask unless they are seated at their table, there cannot be more than six people seated at one table, surfaces in the restaurant must be sanitized every thirty minutes or before and after parties dine. There’s a few others, but it’s all common sense really. For the customers, the most important and vital rule to follow is wearing a mask. In an article published by the CDC, Dr. Robert R. Redfield said, “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.” 

With this in mind, it’s tough to see customers act as if the safety precautions are put in place to solely inconvenience them. Restaurants have had to watch their business decline like never before due to COVID. Trust me —  they want as many customers as they can get —  but they also want to create a safe environment for the staff as well as those who are dining-in. Restaurant owners are pulling themselves in every direction just to stay afloat. Therefore, seeing customers who only think of themselves, their own comfort, and sense of short-lived normalcy is disheartening. No one can be blind to the pandemic. In fact, we all must look deeper at the establishments that we take for granted and see the individuals putting themselves at risk for the comfort or safety of others. We must show a little patience and respect for them. 

I can’t write this article and leave out the wonderful customers that are respectful of the guidelines and grateful to us for serving them. These are the people who give me hope for the near future. I think that the one major key to human interaction during this pandemic is respecting ourselves and also others by wearing a mask when necessary. It’s such a simple and effective task. And if you still believe that it is inconvenient to you, imagine how inconvenient it will be when all of your favorite restaurants close down because the staff has an outbreak. Back to take-out and at-home experiments it will be. I ask that you please remember we still have the ability to move in the right direction— it is not too late.  The effort will just take some patience and respect for the communities we are a part of, and the establishments we choose to surround ourselves with. 

So, with this, I ask you to please wear your mask. The fate of our future depends on it.