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Restaurants Walk A Fine Line Between Embracing Dine-In Service And Enforcing Rules

David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Customers gather at sports bar and grill Ice & Fuel shortly after it reopened in May. The manager says it's been tough to enforce social distancing rules since then.

When the customer is always right, it’s hard to suggest they wear a mask.

Francis Rodriguez, like many restaurant owners, is having a tough time balancing hospitality and social distancing at his Cherokee Street businesses Yaquis and The B-Side. He fears that by strictly enforcing the rules — making sure that customers wear masks when they’re not eating or drinking and that they keep their distance from others — he’s discouraging business he desperately needs.

Customers “don't want to be sitting around here thinking about the virus. That's the last thing they want to be reminded of,” he said. “And us coming up and correcting them is, you know, slapping them in the face. That's how some people feel.” 

A new mask order in St. Louis and St. Louis County, requiring employees and customers to wear masks indoors or in public spaces where social distancing is difficult, could provide the official backing Rodriguez and other business owners need to get their customers to comply.

Yet while technically breaking the rule is considered a misdemeanor and punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, city officials so far aren’t taking a hard line. St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson said during a Facebook Live stream Wednesday that the city is “trying to use persuasion” to hold people accountable.

She said she’s seeing the majority of people in public wearing masks, but she urged people who notice violations at businesses to contact the public health department.

“Our health department will call them, will talk with them and then if it continues to be a problem we’ll pay them a visit,” she said. “We’re not interested in shutting businesses down. We do have that authority, but we’re interested in getting compliance — that’s for employees and for customers.”

Korie Harris, who manages Ice & Fuel in Kirkwood, said the new mask rule is better than nothing, but she worries some bars and restaurants won’t take it seriously and that will hurt businesses like hers.

Harris had to close the restaurant for two days last month after a customer, who also works in the restaurant industry, told her they tested positive for the coronavirus. Harris’ employees all tested negative, but she said losing out on two days of revenue hurt. She worries about the financial impact of shutting down for longer if cases in the region continue to rise.

“Everybody's uncomfortable. And these rules all suck, but they're necessary,” she said. “I just wish people were aware that what they're doing is going to affect other restaurants and bars.”

Credit Schlafly
Customers enjoy beers and food on the patio of Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood, which reopened for outdoor dine-in service in May.

Enforcing rules is nothing new

Fran Caradonna, CEO of Schlafly, said it’s challenging for any restaurant — where people are eating and drinking — to enforce a mask rule. But she added that finding a way to deal with difficult customers isn’t new for her employees.

“In this business, we have to politely ask customers to do things all the time. Especially sometimes when alcohol is involved, you have to remind people to mind their manners,” she said.

Caradonna isn’t overly concerned about customers who don’t wear masks — a more common occurrence at the Schlafly Bankside brewpub in St. Charles than at the company’s other locations. Currently, there is no mask rule in effect there, though coronavirus cases are rising.

Caradonna said employees must limit close interaction with customers not wearing masks to 10 minutes or less. She hopes over time more customers will decide to wear masks out of courtesy toward those around them.

“I think we create an expectation, and there’s become sort of a peer pressure thing,” she said. “I think it’s an educational process. People will understand this is not a political statement, this is like brushing your teeth every morning. It’s just something we do to be healthy.”

Qui Tran, owner of Mai Lee in Brentwood and Nudo House in the Delmar Loop and Creve Coeur, said he’s dealt with difficult customers and racism a lot during his years in the restaurant industry.

When it comes to enforcing safety rules, he explains to customers that everyone is going through a hard time, and wearing a mask is a sign of common courtesy in many Asian countries. 

“When people are a little bit inconvenienced, they feel like they're being oppressed or whatever. And I'm just kind of like, this is insane because you guys don't even know what that word means,” he said. “[Wearing a mask] is not hurting anybody. And matter of fact, it's protecting everyone.” 

Tran said that for the most part, customers are respectful of the rules. But he hopes being able to cite the city and county mask orders going forward will sway others who disagree.

“I had a gentleman say to me, ‘Hey, this is America, we're the land of the free — people shouldn't have to be told to do this.’ And I said, ‘You're right, I'm free to own my own business. But I have a lot of responsibilities. There's rules and regulations that I have to abide by.’” 

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

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Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.