How to avoid a blowup when guests refuse to wear masks

The CDC updated its guidelines yesterday for keeping the confrontations from escalating into violence. How well do your policies conform?
masked restaurant employees
Photograph: Shutterstock

Tempers can boil over when restaurant guests opposed to facemasks are told to either put one on or leave, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledged with the release this week of updated recommendations for protecting industry workers from violent backlashes against anti-COVID requirements. How well are you protecting frontline employees from threats, verbal abuse or actual physical attacks? Take this quiz to see where your training and policies could use some tweaking and reinforcement.

Question 1: A staff member informs a guest waiting for a takeout order that he’ll have to wear a mask and keep six feet apart from fellow customers, as required by state-mandated protocols. He refuses and turns verbally abusive, as a second employee notices in running out a meal to another patron. That second employee should…

  1. Run and get a supervisor;
  2. Stand with her co-worker to show solidarity and strength in numbers;
  3. Join the argument on her co-worker’s side;
  4. Ignore the whole thing to let tempers simmer down.

Answer:  The CDC rules suggest that Number 2 is the best immediate reaction, though Number 1 should be the immediate follow-up. It expressly discourages the third and fourth reaction. Overall, its recommendations call for protecting the employee first and foremost, and not proving the customer wrong. Some states recommend that only one staffer deal with a party throughout their stay, to minimize the number of people who interact. But the CDC’s guidelines state, “Assign two workers to work as a team to encourage COVID-19 prevention policies be followed, if staffing permits.”

Question 2:In any case, the employees should not back down. True or False

Answer:False, but with an asterisk. The CDC advises restaurateurs and other service-industry employers to inform employees of a safe place to which they can retreat if they feel threatened or violence should actually erupt. That refuge should sport such protections as a door that locks from the inside, a second means of egress in case the irate customer tries to force open the door, and some way of alerting authorities, such as an outside phone line or an alarm system. One qualification: The CDC does not advise that the customer be allowed to flout the rules and put staff members and fellow guests at risk. 

Question 3: Don’t antagonize mask or social-distancing opponents by reminding them at every turn of what they need to do for safety reasons. True or Fale

Answer: False. The CDC encourages service and retail businesses to post signs stating their safety regulations on the premises, as well as online and even possibly in ads. Those communications should cover limits on party sizes and composition, such as every member being from the same household. It also stresses the importance of letting customers know they can practice social distancing by using other forms of service, such as curbside pickup or delivery.

Question 4: Employees should be encouraged not to make assumptions about a customer’s state of mind based on body English or other indicators open to interpretation. True or False

Answer: False. Employers are advised to train employees to spot fairly subtle signs of rising tempers, from steady stares to clenched fists, heavy breathing and pacing. The second part of the recommendation calls for teaching frontline staff members to avoid inadvertently raising an outraged customer’s ire through actions such as crossing their arms or pointing a finger to make a point.

Question 5: The CDC recommends that staff members should summon a supervisor when they can search for one without leaving a possibly endangered co-worker alone. Once that supervisor arrives, he/she should take the employees’ side rather than try to defuse the situation by remaining neutral. True or False

Answer: True. “Remain aware of and support employees,” the CDC says. Ditto for other guests who are embroiled in a potentially violent confrontation with fellow customers who refuse to follow safety protocols.

The CDC’s guidelines for averting violence over masks and social distancing can be found here.

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