As states continue to lift their mask mandates, frontline workers in the food industry worry about their safety. CDC guidelines now state that people who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear a mask in many indoor settings. While this guidance reflects our ongoing success curbing the spread of COVID-19, it also leaves concerns for food industry workers facing potential exposure. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), a labor union that represents these essential food workers, points out that many unvaccinated people who refuse to wear masks will continue to enter restaurants, creating a health hazard for the employees. While regulations are in place, many individuals continue to disregard local guidelines at the expense of others’ safety.
Concerns of food service workers:
Even with authorization from the CDC, many states still proceed with caution. The CDC still advises that vaccinated individuals continue to follow individual state regulations. However, some workers feel that employers’ regulations are not enough to ease concerns and limit exposure. Workers who choose to approach customers not abiding by mask mandates enforced by the restaurant can face violent altercations.
Food industry workers are particularly at risk. Since the lifting of the mask mandate in Texas, a restaurant manager was stabbed by a disgruntled customer refusing to wear a mask inside. Another employee at a Burger King in New Jersey was choked by a customer after attempting to enforce mask regulations. And in New York City, a woman refusing to wear a mask while placing an order at a bakery went on a racist tirade aimed at the Black employee who asked her to abide by the establishment’s mask mandate. These verbal and physical attacks also mean employees are subject to potential exposure to unvaccinated individuals.
Many frontline workers are also concerned by the varying vaccination rates. The sudden change in regulations offers customers a sense of security as they begin to resume indoor dining. Meanwhile, there are no strict guidelines on proof of vaccination so this comfort does not extend to the employees. States and businesses should use caution when easing restrictions as public health officials continue to shed light on contagious variants of the COVID-19 virus. This is particularly worrisome for many food service workers who have spent months convincing customers to respect mask mandates and social distancing.
When Texas lifted its statewide mask mandate in March 2021, allowing businesses, including restaurants, to operate at full capacity, food industry workers, including those in grocery stores and restaurants, gathered outside the capitol to express their concerns regarding the new health regulations. In Oregon, one store had to reverse its decision to lift the mask requirement after many employees left their jobs in response to the sudden change in guidance. While many people are optimistic about the economic changes to come, these new guidelines may also create a health threat as essential workers are no longer protected.
More recently, states such as New York and New Jersey have been cautious about implementing CDC guidelines. Many businesses remain unsure if they should ask maskless customers for proof of vaccination. Some restaurants have offered food incentives for those customers who show a vaccination card.
New York City is renowned for its cuisine, with more than 250,000 residents working in the restaurant industry. These jobs are crucial to the local economies and play integral roles in many communities. With more than 50,000 food and drink establishments, New York City was greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2021, Governor Andrew Cuomo agreed to endorse CDC guidelines allowing New York City restaurants and bars to resume operation at full capacity, a decision encouraged by New York’s increased vaccination rates. This change followed a previous decision to reopen bar seating on May 3, and to remove New York City’s 12 AM curfew by the end of the month. That said, however, many New York City restaurant workers remain apprehensive of this seemingly quick change in regulations. While the reopening of many restaurants to full capacity and the lifting of the mask mandate means more business for these establishments, it also means a greater risk for employees. One New York City restaurant employee, John Mato, noted that while increased business is good for the restaurant, the sudden influx of customers will be a lot for the staff to handle. With the new regulations, many workers are concerned that customers will act contentiously.
Implications for the food industry:
With mask mandates easing and restaurants busier than ever, food service workers struggle to keep themselves safe. The CDC still acknowledges that the highest risk setting in a restaurant involves indoor seating, no mask wearing, and lack of social distancing. Businesses running at full capacity means an influx of customers, many still unvaccinated. Furthermore, full capacity dining and no masks increases risk of viral transmission as people are talking loudly and in close quarters.
The present concern is how the CDC will address the impending risk to frontline workers, since their new regulation is based on the assumption that only vaccinated individuals will remove their masks. Moreover, confusion regarding the contradictory regulations amongst federal, state, and local jurisdictions does not promote a sense of security for frontline workers in the food industry. While mask-wearing is still highly encouraged in settings where vaccination status of others is unknown, it isn’t very practical. The solution for the time being requires workplaces to devise health and safety protocols that will keep customers and food service employees safe.
New York Restaurant Data:
- New York Restaurant Industry At A Glance, Restaurant.org
- The Restaurant Industry in New York City: Tracking the Recovery, OSC
- State-by-State Guide to Face Mask Requirements, AARP
- New York Lifts Covid Restrictions, CNN
- NYC Restaurants Open at Full Capacity With Some Limitations and New CDC Mask Guidance, NY1
- Restaurants Are Welcoming Back Diners, But Say Mask Rules Have Them Relying On Trust, NPR
- What the Future of Restaurants Might Look Like, Bloomberg
- For Many Workers, Change in Mask Policy Is a Nightmare, New York Times
- Restaurants Are Reopening, Yet Many Remain Understaffed, Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center