Earlier this week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommended people wear cloth masks in public, especially in grocery stores and pharmacies.
Restaurants that remain open have slowly been changing their own policies to enable mask-wearing. McDonald’s Corp. said late last week that it was sourcing masks to make them available to workers at restaurants in “hot spots.” Coffee giant Starbucks said it was also exploring sourcing masks.
Chick-fil-A, meanwhile, said Friday that employees might be wearing face protection. “As an additional precaution, guests also may see team members wearing face protection while working at the restaurant,” the company said in a message to customers.
The moves echo those of many traditional retailers, including Walmart and Target, along with third-party delivery company DoorDash, which said they would work on getting masks for workers.
The evolving response from restaurant chains is coming as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) own recommendations have changed from saying that masks are unnecessary to recommending people wear them.
Restaurant chains, which have been struggling to keep pace with the evolving nature of the shutdown, are likewise working to keep pace with the recommendation on masks. “We’re just trying to keep up to date with the guidelines,” said Ceridwyn King, chair of the Department of Tourism and Hospitality Management at Temple University. “Only recently have the guidelines with regard to masks changed. This is just them being responsive to that.”
At the same time, the changes put restaurant companies up against supply challenges. The lack of masks on the open market is one of the things keeping more restaurant chains from supplying them, or supplying them to all of their stores.
McDonald’s, for instance, was able to supply some nonmedical masks for workers and is making those available in areas where the virus is at its worst. The company said it would make more of them available as supply allowed.
“We would like to make them available to everyone,” said David Tovar, vice president of U.S. communications for the Chicago-based burger giant. “They’re in limited supply. As we get more supply, we’ll be able to expand that. We just don’t know at this point.”
The efforts come as employees have put more pressure on fast-food chains to provide them with masks and other equipment to keep them safe. McDonald’s workers in particular, backed by labor advocacy groups such as Fight for $15, have staged strikes or walkouts in several cities in protest.
On Wednesday, for instance, labor-backed groups produced a survey of McDonald’s workers finding that two-thirds of them say the company isn’t doing enough to protect them during the pandemic. The group also said one-third of workers went to work sick because of a lack of paid sick leave.
In the survey, 92% of workers said masks were either unavailable or limited.
King said restaurants should consider masks in part to ease fears among workers, many of whom are low-wage earners who are nonetheless asked to come into work as others stay home.
“Restaurants have a responsibility, the ones that are open and operating, to look at employees first,” King said, noting that restaurants should supply masks or let workers wear their own—homemade masks have become popular. “Even from a psychological perspective, hospitality operations should be facilitating that as best as possible. If nothing else, it makes employees feel safe.”
“A mask helps people feel a little more in control of the situation,” she added.
Restaurants are taking some other steps to protect employees. At McDonald’s, operators are installing plexiglass barriers in drive-thrus and front counters. Chick-fil-A is installing sinks in its drive-thrus so workers can wash their hands more often.
These efforts also give customers a better perception of the brand, King said, noting that customers’ own views on masks have evolved as the shutdown has gone on and the CDC’s recommendations have changed.
Consumers who are now being told they should wear masks may well expect it from the people they’re dealing with when they are out, and that includes restaurant workers.
“I think before, when the regulations weren’t required, if you saw someone with a mask, the way you perceive them is different than it is now,” King said. “Before, you thought maybe they’re sick. Now their assumption is we’re trying to protect each other.”