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Michigan Restaurants And Bars Train Employees To De-Escalate Mask-Related Conflicts

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For some, wearing a mask in a place of business has moved from a question of safety to an ideological battle. In Michigan, two high-profile altercations involving masks turned deadly. One victim tried to enforce the law. The other sought to defy it. Events like these have prompted some Michigan bar and restaurant owners to offer training designed to de-escalate mask-related conflicts with customers. From member station WKAR in East Lansing, Kevin Lavery reports.

KEVIN LAVERY, BYLINE: In May, Calvin Munnerlyn found himself in a heated exchange with a customer at a thrift store in Flint. He was trying to enforce the state's mask law, but his stance cost him his life. He was shot minutes later by a man who arrived at the store with the customer's husband. Weeks later, near Lansing, another customer who refused to wear a mask got into an argument with a convenience store worker. He then stabbed another customer and was shot and killed by a sheriff's deputy. Tragedies such as these have put Michigan's frontline customer service workforce on high alert.

The Mayfair Bar in Haslett opened in 1934, when the ink ending prohibition was still wet. Its rooftop deck overlooks a lakeside park, making it a popular place for drinks. But now you can't walk into the Mayfair without a mask. It's something bartender Joe Hiltz contends with.

JOE HILTZ: There's a couple of people here that we, honestly, haven't felt safe around. But we do what we do. We just deal with it and just move on. I've been dealing with drunk people for 20 years, so this is just a different type of situation I have to deal with.

LAVERY: Customers aren't served at the bar anymore. They have to stay at their table to be waited on. In many states, mandatory mask orders have turned hospitality and service workers into compliance officers. For many, it's an uncomfortable role.

SCOTT ELLIS: Because of COVID and just society being so charged up right now, we said, all right, we got to do something specific to prevent disturbances.

LAVERY: That's Scott Ellis, who heads the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association. He wanted his membership to hone their skills to help them de-escalate intense encounters. Ellis, a former police officer, turned to Paul Beasinger. He's another former officer who now runs a company specializing in workforce violence prevention. Beasinger says employees need to listen to their customers with empathy to help keep the interactions positive. It's key to avoid so-called trigger phrases. Here's a big one - you need to calm down.

PAUL BEASINGER: In the history of people having conflicts with people, using the term you need to calm down has never calmed someone down because what that infers is that the person you're dealing with has lost control.

LAVERY: While this specific training may be novel for some hospitality workers here, similar efforts have been underway across the country for years. Chris Hulbert heads development for the National Conflict Resolution Center in San Diego. He urges employers to be aware of their own personal bias.

CHRIS HULBURT: Maybe they have his or her own attitude about people who refuse to wear a mask, and that really has to be held in check because that will feed the fire.

LAVERY: Back at Mayfair Bar, owner Bret Story says the training he's just received is already paying off.

BRET STORY: It's getting easier by the day. I think it's going to keep going that way.

LAVERY: The group plans to expand its online de-escalation training to a national audience next month. In the era of coronavirus, restaurants and bars are finding customer service more challenging than ever. And some are trying to meet those challenges with new training and patience.

For NPR News, I'm Kevin Lavery in East Lansing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.