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For Restaurants, Masks Could Be the New Normal

Even if it’s not mandated by the government, many restaurant owners are making sure staff cover their faces

Fabric mask held in woman’s hands. Photo by Massimo Cavallari/Getty Images

A few months ago, at the beginning of cold and flu season, Erica Pietrzyk decided to have employees wear face masks while working at her Polish food stand Pietrzyk Pierogi in Detroit. In her mind, the masks were the best way to protect customers and her employees from getting sick. The patrons, however, were put off by the practice. “We determined that we would just stop it for the time being, because people are very uncomfortable with it,” Pietrzyk says.

Now, amid the novel coronavirus epidemic, when employees don a mask, it barely gets a second glance.

Restaurants and bars have long been held to some of the most stringent regulations for food safety, with health departments enforcing regulations for temperature control, handwashing, cross contamination, and the use of gloves to prepare food. The novel coronavirus has made those procedures all the more important, as workers try to protect themselves and contain the disease’s spread. And as some states and municipalities begin to contemplate life after the novel coronavirus surge, restaurant workers are increasingly being told to wear masks.

Already cities like Austin, Miami, New York, and some parts of California have implemented new rules requiring essential workers such as restaurant employees, as well as the general public, to wear masks when they leave their homes. More governments are starting to place deadlines for businesses and community members to gear up. Despite the medical advisories and regulations, it still remains difficult to police individual behavior or ensure that people using masks are doing so properly, and even the president has been resistant to calls to a wear mask.

But for many restaurants, masks — while initially not recommended by the CDC — feel like a vital required step to prevent community spread. “A lot of what the CDC and the health departments are telling people to do for the general public,” Pietrzyk says of the recommendations for preventing COVID-19 infections, “are things that we’ve always done because it’s what’s required of a food business.”

Wayne County, where Detroit is located, isn’t currently enforcing any regulations requiring essential workers wear face masks, despite having one of the largest outbreaks in the nation. Still, many restaurant owners like Pietrzyk have already taken it upon themselves to make sure staff cover their faces.

Luciano DelSignore is the chef and co-owner of nine Michigan establishments with his business partner Michael Chetcuti. At first, their restaurants had an “if you have one, wear one” policy for face coverings, but they’ve since ramped up efforts to provide employees with equipment, passing out bandanas to employees at Arbor Brewing Company and Bigalora Wood-Fired Cucina.

This week, the partners were able to acquire and distribute 300 masks to staff. “We’re trying to protect our employees. We’re trying to protect the customers,” DelSignore says, noting that at this point he wouldn’t feel comfortable purchasing carryout from an establishment where employees weren’t wearing masks. “I think that everybody feels the same way.”

However, there are still barriers to using them in a food industry setting. In Pietrzyk’s kitchen, staff stand six feet apart and wear masks throughout their shifts — a combination of N95 masks (a higher-quality mask that filters out 95 percent of airborne particles including hazardous dust, gasses, and vapors), and painter’s masks that offer protection from everyday dust particles. Pietrzyk says the N95s are costly, around $6.50 each. The masks are also difficult to wear at times. “It’s hard to breathe with them on at some points, especially when you standing over hot boiling water,” she says.

After a week of trying to adapt his small restaurant Saffron De Twah to carryout-only service, chef Omar Anani closed on March 17 due to limited sales and difficulties ensuring employees could reach work safely. He’s since refocused his efforts on providing meals to five different programs feeding frontline workers and unemployed service industry staff. It’s grueling, mostly solitary, kitchen work that he does while wearing a rotating collection of masks.

“A good quality mask is hard to find,” Anani says, calling the shortage of N95 masks for essential workers a “nightmare.” The first set Anani acquired were handmade, but had elastic straps that were too short and didn’t fit his face. He’s since acquired some better masks from local makers using double and triple layers of cloth with micron filters embedded. A local distributor Motor City Seafood recently donated a few disposable masks to his kitchen.

From the beginning, Anani wanted to ensure he and his collaborators were wearing masks during food prep to prevent infection by an asymptomatic carrier. But at least one employee was no longer able to volunteer because they felt too anxious and claustrophobic wearing a face covering in the kitchen. “Just like you have the fight back on gloves in kitchens, you’re gonna have the same fight with masks,” he says.

Right now, people are relying on masks to put them at ease, but they aren’t necessarily using them properly, Anani says. “It’s been a learning experience about masks, which I’d never thought I’d learn about in my culinary career.”

Wearing a mask correctly requires practice and care. Anani sought advice along the way on how to develop procedures by talking to friends and relatives in the medical field. Yet, he’s observed other restaurant operators in interviews with masks dangling around their necks and over their heads. “You can’t wear the same mask like that over and over,” he says. “The thing needs to be washed. It needs to be single-use like a glove.” Anani now keeps a bag at the restaurant dedicated to holding used masks. The bag is placed in quarantine between washings. He has enough masks at the moment to get him through two days of work. Anani then takes the bag home and washes them in hot water and on high in the dryer.

Pietrzyk says she hopes that going forward, patrons will become more acclimated to the sight of service workers wearing face coverings. “I think for a lot of people it’s an adjustment period,” she says.

And while it’s hard for anyone at this point to truly imagine what business could look like in the coming weeks and months, DelSignore believes that face masks will likely become a regular part of the new uniform for restaurant employees. “They’re going to become a serious part of normal life,” he says. “I think years from now people are going to be walking around wearing masks.”

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