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

May 21, 2021
Originally published on May 21, 2021 6:27 am

Restaurants are among the countless businesses trying to chart next steps given 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, HOST:

It's been over a week since the new CDC guidance said it's OK for fully vaccinated people to ditch their masks in most spaces. That news came with a lot of confusion, especially for restaurants that have struggled to stay above water and protect their workers all year. Now the U.S. National Restaurant Association, which represents more than 500,000 American restaurant companies, says it's removing a masking suggestion from its operating guidance.

I talked with Larry Lynch. He's the senior vice president of certification and operations at the U.S. National Restaurant Association. And he said the initial reaction by restaurants to the CDC guidance was surprise.

LARRY LYNCH: And it just caught us quite off guard because there's been a number of pieces of information coming from CDC in the last few weeks that told us to keep masks on, and nothing was changing. So it was both a pleasant surprise inasmuch as it sent a message that restaurants were reopening. But it was also a confusing surprise inasmuch as it was limited to people who have 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.

MARTIN: How is that going to happen?

LYNCH: Well, I think what we're doing is a little bit of trust. And so 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 backstage until we can get an idea of exactly when they're going to coordinate the guidance to the regulations.

MARTIN: Should restaurants require employees to be vaccinated?

LYNCH: 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's encouraging their employees to get it.

MARTIN: There was a statement made by Marc Perrone from United Food and Commercial Workers Union. He suggested that restaurant workers will now be in a position of having to be vaccination police. What is your response to that?

LYNCH: Well, and 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.

MARTIN: 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?

LYNCH: 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 multiple states, and they can't have a consistent message to each of their restaurants. And so it would put them in against - in 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.

MARTIN: Let me just follow up on that before we close. What more would you like to hear from the CDC, what specifics?

LYNCH: We'd like to better understand how we're supposed to apply some of these rules if, in fact, we can't identify who has or hasn't been vaccinated. And at the same time, what we'd like to do is see the various agencies coordinate with each other. So if, in fact, the - OSHA has a requirement for protecting employees against exposure to the virus, then how does that coordinate with CDC's advice that vaccinated folks can gather? And so it's just asking the agencies to get closer in terms of aligning with industry and with consumers to understand exactly how all of this applies when we know not everyone's been vaccinated yet.

MARTIN: Larry Lynch is the senior vice president of science and industry. We appreciate your time. Thanks so much for talking with us.

LYNCH: Thank you, Rachel. Really appreciate the time today. Have a great one. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.