No mask, no service?

Food businesses must consider the pros and cons of making face masks mandatory for customers.
Food businesses must consider the pros and cons of making face masks mandatory for customers.

Face masks have become a highly debated topic during the pandemic, particularly now that food businesses are beginning to reopen their doors. Some governments are making face masks mandatory in public places or establishments where physical distancing is difficult to maintain. In other countries and jurisdictions, the public is only being strongly advised to wear face masks in these situations. Also, in many cases it is being left up to individual food businesses to decide whether to require face masks to enter the establishment. As servers and restaurant managers have now become the unlikely gatekeepers for public health mandates, it is essential that food businesses know and train their staff on what the legal requirements for reopening in their country and jurisdiction are.

If it is not government mandated, many are struggling with whether to require face masks in order to enter the establishment, especially if it is a grab-and-go type of food business (rather than a sit down restaurant). Considering the pros and cons of making face masks mandatory can help food businesses make a decision that is best for their situation.

The pros of requiring face masks

Reduce the spread of COVID-19

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as face masks work to prevent the spread of COVID-19. There are a variety of different face masks that one can choose such as N95 masks, disposable surgical masks and reusable cloth masks. These different masks have different abilities to prevent the wearer from contracting COVID-19 or spreading it.

Where face masks are mandatory, the public are not required to purchase and use a particular type of mask. As long as a type of face covering is used, the face mask requirement is met. Many individuals are choosing to use cloth masks, either homemade or purchased from suppliers. While these masks do not prevent the wearer from breathing in the coronavirus in the air, they do prevent respiratory droplets from spreading from the wearer’s mouth. The prevention of respiratory droplets reduces the possibility of COVID-19 being spread from the wearer and into the environment they are in.

Some food businesses are required to have customers wear face masks when entering the establishment to place an order or pick one up. In some jurisdictions, food businesses that are now permitted to conduct dine-in service are required to mandate their customers wear face masks upon entering the food business and walking around inside. In this case, customers are only permitted to remove face masks while sitting at the table and eating. The goal of these requirements is to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and keep the risks low for staff and customers alike.

Make customers feel comfortable

Many people are still very concerned about contracting COVID-19 and choose to wear face masks as much as possible. Some people are choosing to only shop or dine at establishments that make wearing face masks mandatory for entrance. By requiring customers to wear face masks upon entering the establishment, food businesses could see an increase in customers. There are customers who are more likely to dine at a food business that enforces face masks because it shows that the food business is taking COVID-19 seriously and taking precautions. Customers may feel more comfortable entering a food establishment that is going the extra mile to keep staff and customers safe. This can also help with acquiring returning customers — if a customer feels safe dining at a food business, they are more likely to return for another meal.

Make staff feel valued

Requiring customers wear face masks in the establishment can also make staff feel safe and valued. Staff members are wearing face masks in order to keep customers safe, so having customers wear face masks helps to protect the staff. Wearing face masks isn’t comfortable for many people, but staff members are putting their discomfort aside in order to do their work and serve customers. It can help staff feel like they are seen and valued if they are not the only ones required to wear face masks within the food business. Also, it is expected that many staff members are feeling worried about returning to work at this time, so having everyone within the establishment wear masks — including customers — can help stem those fears. It is important to remember that staff are the lifeblood of any food business, so keeping them safe and happy is essential to the success of a food business.

The cons of requiring face masks

Enforcing the requirement

As with any business policy, enforcement is key to ensuring that requirements are met. Choosing to make face masks mandatory is a big decision. By making face masks a mandatory requirement for entrance, food businesses need to be prepared to enforce it. This requires extra planning on management’s part in order to decide how the requirement will be enforced and who will do it. Staff need to be trained on what to say to customers that are not wearing a face mask, and who to direct customers to should they have additional questions or complaints. Simply putting up signs at the entrance is not enough. All staff at the food business need to be prepared to enforce the rule and not make any exceptions.

Dealing with aggravated customers

Mandatory face masks is a hot topic these days, and it is a divisive one. People tend to feel strongly one way or another — some people fully support face masks while others argue that they are unnecessary or an infringement on an individual’s rights. Since face masks are not accepted by everyone, food businesses need to be prepared to deal with angry and combative customers. Food businesses are already reporting that they are dealing with aggravated customers when trying to enforce a mandatory mask requirement — and some have only been open for a few weeks.

It is important to train staff on how to deal with angry customers, as well as how to deescalate a situation. Staff need to be advised on when to involve management or the owner, especially if a customer puts the safety of staff at risk. Staff should be instructed to never take matters into their own hands when trying to deal with a customer who is getting aggressive. In the event that a customer is becoming violent or will not leave the premises after being asked to leave, the police must be called.

Turning customers away

No matter how well a food business does in communicating with its customers, there will be some that simply choose to eat elsewhere. Just as a food business can choose to make wearing masks mandatory, customers can choose to pick another food business to eat at. This is something that must be strongly considered when choosing to make face masks mandatory. As food businesses reopen and attempt to bring in customers and regain revenue, requiring face masks could be a deterrent. Food businesses need to weigh the pros of face masks in keeping staff and customers safe, and the cons of potentially losing some business.

Know the law

Overall it is essential that food businesses know the requirements for reopening that they must adhere to. In some countries and jurisdictions, this involves requiring face masks for customers. In other areas, face masks are optional and it is up to the food business to decide whether to make them mandatory for customers. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this topic — the legal requirements for reopening will determine how a food business handles PPE requirements. The inconsistency among jurisdictions is causing confusion among food businesses and customers, so it may take some time for people to accept what is required of them in their locality. As time goes on, face mask requirements will become more clear and easier to navigate for food businesses.