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Add another ingredient to restaurants’ woes: mask hostility

As they fight for survival and safety, staff become targets

Bessie King,  general manager of Villa Mexico restaurant on Water Street in Boston, regularly has to tell people to wear masks.
Bessie King, general manager of Villa Mexico restaurant on Water Street in Boston, regularly has to tell people to wear masks.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Are the maskholes winning? Please let the answer be no. And yet …

In Jamaica Plain, Stacy Radowitz, the longtime manager of an ice cream shop, says the belligerent anti-maskers who curse her daily are driving her from food service.

“The other day I had a Grubhub driver picking up an order and she didn’t have a mask, and I said, ‘You need a mask,’ but she proceeds to take the order anyway — a peanut butter sundae or something — and then on the way out she calls me a ‘stupid [expletive]’”

In Brookline, the owner of Michael’s Deli started closing on Mondays to give himself and his staff a rest from mask-related confrontations.

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“At least once a day I’m told to go ‘f myself,’” said Steven Peljovich.

“I thought, either I’m going to assault someone or I am going to cause myself such stress that I go to the hospital.”

When historians try to capture life in the pandemic, perhaps one of the hardest facets for future generations to grasp will be the mask wars, in many cases playing out in places where we go for a respite, or try to — ice cream shops, little farm stores, restaurant patios.

Bessie King delivered an order to a customer outside Villa Mexico on Water Street in Boston.
Bessie King delivered an order to a customer outside Villa Mexico on Water Street in Boston.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker has issued an order mandating face coverings in places where social distancing is not possible (except for children under the age of 2, or those who are unable to due to a medical condition). Restaurant patrons are required to wear masks when not at their tables.

Most people are following the rules, but as restaurants open back up, a tiny minority of resistors has injected such stress into dining and even takeout, that Mass Restaurants United, an advocacy group trying to help members survive the pandemic, recently posted the following missive on Instagram.

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“Eat small + local,” the post reads. “Be nice to your server. Wear your damn mask.”

The high stakes behind the jaunty “damn mask” plea are evident in a (yet-unpublished) op-ed written by chef Jody Adams, a founder of the restaurant advocacy group.

“I see grown-ups, with a kind of smirking defiance, walk maskless through our restaurant, or dangle their masks under their chin or below their noses, or not bother with them at all,” she wrote.

“If you’re not wearing a mask you’re endangering my staff and you’re putting my business at risk.”

By the way, you haven’t seen the op-ed because chef Tony Maws — also a founder of Mass Restaurants United — urged her not to publish it for fear it would alienate customers. (She provided a copy to the Globe.)

“When I first read it, my reaction was a lot of fist pumping — Go Jody! — but I just want to make sure it’s coming across the way it was intended,” Maws said.

That tension — the art of schooling customers while also wooing them — is on display at the Lobster Shanty in Salem. When the owner, Diane Wolf, posted a sign at the hostess stand telling diners how to wear their masks — cover your nose — she made sure to include a cutesy heart and smiley face.

“I had just watched a webinar on how to approach customers,” she said, “and you have to make them part of your team.

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“As much as I would have loved to be like, ‘Listen [expletive], wear your frickin’ mask,' I know that wouldn’t get me anywhere, that’s why I went all teenage girl.”

The vigilance required to monitor compliance in a life-or-death health crisis is exhausting, she said. “If someone gets sick, I’ll carry the burden of guilt.”

In parts of the country, mask confrontations have turned violent and even deadly. A Family Dollar store security guard was shot and killed in Michigan after telling a customer her child had to wear a mask. Other workers have been punched and threatened for their efforts to enforce public health rules. In the Tampa Bay area, police have received hundreds of calls over mask confrontations, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Closer to home, mask anger has been making headlines at ice cream shops.

“We again have had a nasty visit from a ‘refuse-to-wear-a-mask’ person,” Judy Herrell, the owner of Herrell’s Ice Cream & Sweet Bakery in Northampton, wrote on Facebook on July 4.

“His partner wore a 1/2 mask below her nose,” the post continued. “She was asked not to eat in the store. He wasn’t served and asked to put on a mask or leave.‘'

A vulgarity followed.

Even without mask tension, these are hard times for restaurants. Some 3,600 of the state’s 16,000 restaurants have closed because of the pandemic, said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.

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Financial pressure comes on top of health concerns. “You can’t eat or drink with a mask on,” Luz said, “so restaurant workers are already more on the front lines than people in most other industries.”

He has contacted the Department of Public Health in hopes of doing a joint public awareness campaign.

In the meantime, the small group of never-maskers can be a big source of stress.

At Villa Mexico Cafe in the Financial District, some customers, told they won’t be served without a mask, turn rude — they roll their eyes, sarcastically roll up their shirts to cover their faces, or storm out, according to general manager Bessie King, a board member of Mass Restaurants United.

“This is bull[expletive],” one customer reportedly proclaimed as he exited.

“I don’t want to say that it’s an issue every day,” King said, “but it’s getting to that point.”


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.