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Restaurants Are Welcoming Back Diners, But Say Mask Rules Have Them Relying On Trust

A staff member wearing a mask serves customers at a restaurant in San Mateo, Calif., on May 17.
Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images
A staff member wearing a mask serves customers at a restaurant in San Mateo, Calif., on May 17.

Restaurants are among the countless businesses trying to chart next stepsgiven the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that it's OK for fully vaccinated people to go unmasked outdoors and indoors.

The CDC issued that guidance last week, and restaurateurs, who have struggled to stay above water and protect workers since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, were surprised and confused, says Larry Lynch, senior vice president of science and industry at the National Restaurant Association. As states and local governments lift or amend their mask mandates, businesses like restaurants and bars have been left to make and enforce their own rules.

That tension has sparked criticism that the guidance will essentially require businesses to act as "vaccination police," ensuring that those who are unmasked have really been vaccinated.

The National Restaurant Association's advice to members about the CDC guidance is to operate on trust, Lynch says. The group, the largest food-service trade association, representing nearly 500,000 establishments, is removing a suggestion from its operating guidance that patrons wear masks indoors. It is also suggesting that restaurants put up signs asking that diners who are unvaccinated remain masked unless they're eating.

"We don't want to create a conflict situation, so we're going to be looking for people to comply based on their own admission, and we feel fairly comfortable that most people will," Lynch tells Morning Edition.

But for now, the association is still recommending that employees continue wearing masks. It's an area of policy that needs some clarification, Lynch says, given a requirement from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that employers must provide a safe and healthful workplace.

Here are excerpts of the conversation:

On restaurants' initial reaction to the CDC guidance

Surprise, and it just caught us quite off guard because there's been a number of pieces of information coming from the CDC in the last few weeks that told us keep masks on and nothing was changing. It was both a pleasant surprise in as much as it sent a message that restaurants were reopening, but it was also a confusing surprise in as much as it was limited to people who had been vaccinated. And quite frankly, we just didn't know how we were going to identify those who were vaccinated from those who were not in terms of admission.

On how restaurants will track those who are vaccinated and those who are not

I think what we're doing is a little bit of trust. What we've asked restaurants to do is to put signage up and ask people to respect those who have been vaccinated and those who have not by wearing face masks until they dine if they have not yet been vaccinated. We have, however, asked that employees continue to be masked while they're working — and part of that comes from the fact that there's a little bit of a gap between what the CDC has suggested and the current rules coming from OSHA, which is a requirement that says that employers must protect their employees against exposure to the COVID-19 virus. So one of the things we've done is suggest that they continue to wear face masks [for the time being] until we can get an idea of exactly when they're going to coordinate the guidance to the regulations.

Should restaurants require employees to be vaccinated?

I think it would be a great idea, and in our most recent guidance we have suggested that restaurants do just that. And we find many restaurants now are finding very creative ways to encourage their employees to become vaccinated. They're offering them pay incentives, time-off incentives. But I think every restaurateur recognizes the importance of that. I think we have to keep in mind there are some people that just can't get vaccinated for health reasons, other reasons, but for those who can, every restaurant is encouraging their employees to get it.

Marc Perrone from United Food and Commercial Workers [International] Union suggested that restaurant workers will now be in a position of having to be "vaccination police." What is your response to that?

We would argue differently. We're not asking restaurants to do that. That's why we're suggesting the signage for customers instead, so that we ask them to comply. And to your point, I think it puts us in a bit of a tenuous situation. We saw some of the conflicts that occurred this last year over face coverings coming into the restaurants and people who argued. We don't want to create a conflict situation, so we're going to be looking for people to comply based on their own admission. And we feel fairly comfortable that most people will.

Some states and cities have not adjusted their masking orders in accordance with the new CDC guidance. Does that put some restaurants at a disadvantage?

It could — it absolutely could. I think it not only puts them at a disadvantage, but it creates confusion when you think of the number of restaurants whose brand cross[es] multiple states, and they can't have a consistent message to each of their restaurants. And so it would put them at a disadvantage against other states or locations that might have lifted the mask mandates already, but at least within their local competitive community they're all going to be in that same spot – either masked or unmasked.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.