As restaurants across the country begin to reopen their doors (or patios) once again, many business owners say they're starting to feel hopeful about the future as eager customers return to enjoy a nice evening out. Unfortunately, however, the reopening process has come with a surprising host of new headaches for several eateries.
With new safety protocols such as mandatory mask wearing in place, many newly reopened restaurants are facing resistance from a small but disruptive population of unruly patrons — and some diners are taking their frustration out on restaurant staff.
Though many of the safety guidelines have been issued by local governments, and not the restaurants themselves, people working in the service industry have found themselves involved in intense confrontations.
When wearing a mask becomes a big ask
When Mo Marzullo and her husband Matt reopened their counter service restaurant Matt & Mo's Italian Beef in Hazel Park, Michigan, they had two requests for customers: Wear a mask when placing an order or when picking it up, and practice social distancing. Most customers were on board with the protocols, Marzulla told TODAY, but a small portion were very upset by the new mandate.
"People would argue with us from the other side of our windows with such hate in their voice," Marzullo said.
Many on social media, including people who had never even visited the restaurant, also started to express their disapproval.
"We were receiving mean messages, emails and comments from the public," Marzullo said. "We started to get fake (posts) on Facebook and Google from very mean people just because we require a mask for safety."
David Smith, the owner of Café Muse in Royal Oak, Michigan, said several customers have ignore his restaurant's mask-wearing requirement each day. Recently, Smith said a customer was so upset after being asked to cover his face while picking up a takeout order that the restaurant had to call the police.
"When I asked him to step outside he got upset and started yelling in the dining room," Smith explained to TODAY. "Eventually the co-owner came out and asked (the customer) to leave. He finally walked outside but remained agitated. Finally, my partner told him he wasn’t going to be able to get food from our restaurant today — or in the future."
But even after the customer left the restaurant's premises, the harassment didn't stop.
"After he (the customer) finally drove off, he called and threatened us," Smith said.
Erin Smith and her husband operate Feges Barbecue in a food court complex in Houston and recently reminded their Facebook followers about Harris County's mask requirement. The post garnered a lot of mixed reactions, which surprised the business owner who has been eager to start serving people since earlier this spring.
"Some were quick to respond that because we were enforcing the face mask rule, they'd never support our business again, but mostly the response was positive," Smith said. "We're already hurting from months of bleak revenue so the thought of losing more business is very disheartening. But the face mask requirement is critical for the health and safety of our customers and staff."
Do manners still matter?
In the United States, it has long been customary to tip servers after a meal, even if the service isn't absolutely perfect — after all, many waiters make below minimum wage.
Despite the fact that many servers have lost their jobs, or have been furloughed and just recently returned to work, some restaurant owners are saying that a small portion of customers are deciding that tipping just isn't necessary in a COVID-19 world.
"Some of them feel that the way we interpret and enforce the guidelines is part of their tip calculation," Victor Jung, managing director at New York City's Petaluma restaurant, told TODAY. "But the reality is that staff members are essential workers, risking their lives to provide goods and services to a customer. Not tipping is a slap in their face, especially if the food and service was on point."
Jung said he thinks that some people may be feeling frustrated after being forced to socially distance or self isolate for so long and are now acting out on servers simply because they can.
"We had a female customer who seemed as if she was bar hopping and enjoying her first outing after months of quarantine," Jung said. "She demanded another one of our signature frozen drinks, but we had to make sure she was not being over-served, so we said it was her last drink. She got up, screamed at staff and demanded to speak with me."
But even the managing director wasn't able to placate the situation.
"When I told her she could not be served more, she left no tip and threw her mask on the ground as she left the patio," Jung continued.
It's not all tantrums and tiffs
While reopening has come with its fair share of challenges (including making physical adjustments to interior spaces to help encourage social distancing), many restaurateurs were also quick to express their gratitude for returning customers who have been both understanding and kind.
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Jung said the majority of his customers have been complying with his eatery's face-covering requirement and have expressed how happy they are just to get out of the house.
"As each day passes, customers are developing their own COVID-19 dining and social etiquette. They are not hovering over each other waiting for a table and they know when to wear masks," he said.
Some restaurants say customers are even going out of their way to help local businesses get back on their feet.
"One customer came in the other day just to give me $40 to split between our staff because he had read about the difficulties we were having with some of our non-mask wearing customers," David Smith said. "Another customer picked up a takeout order ... and handed me a $200 check. They wanted us to know that we were appreciated."