To wear a mask, or not to wear a mask. That is the question. And the answer is … well, complicated. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fully vaccinated individuals could mostly stop wearing masks and social distancing, both inside and outside. And on May 16, the City and County of Denver lifted mask requirements, as well as capacity limits, which means that dining out is back to normal, right?
Not so fast. Many restaurants are asking that guests still wear masks when away from their table and that staff wear them at all times.
“We haven’t changed anything,” says Natascha Hess, owner of the Ginger Pig. “You still have to wear masks when you come in and go to a table. I don’t feel like we’re ready [to ease up on restrictions]. If I was a consumer, I’d want to go to a restaurant that was hypervigilant and really careful. That’s how we are about our food, we’re as careful as we can be. I want people to know we’re doing as much as we can to protect them. We want to create an environment where people can come in and feel safe and know we’re doing the best we can. To keep our staff and customers as safe as possible, we should continue doing what we’ve been doing. It’s been working for us. If you have to wear a mask on a plane and a train, then you should still have to wear it in a restaurant.”
The Ginger Pig isn’t alone in this—Coperta, Tavernetta, Uncle Julio’s Hacienda in Wheat Ridge, and several others are also still requiring facial coverings at their restaurants, with many posting about their decisions on social media. Others are going with the CDC guidelines and allowing vaccinated guests and employees to choose for themselves whether to mask up.
At Barolo Grill, owner Ryan Fletter decided to lift mask requirements for both guests and staff. (Fletter estimates that 97 percent of all of Barolo’s employees are fully vaccinated.) “I didn’t do it with a cavalier approach—it wasn’t let’s throw our masks in the air like at graduation or have this big mask burning party,” Fletter says. “I didn’t want to undermine this experience at all. But I felt like we [restaurant staff] were the only ones wearing masks at the restaurant most of the time anyway. Customers walk in the door and then take their mask off when they get to their table. Now that most everyone who wants to be vaccinated has been and we’re on the other side, we felt like we should make [wearing a mask] voluntary. No one should feel weird about it, nobody is shunning you. I want to be a space where you have the right to be more comfortable.”
At Littleton’s HiLo restaurant, chef-owner Greg Shule is still requiring unvaccinated staff to wear a mask, but they are not requiring vaccinated customers to wear them. Asking guests to prove they’ve been vaccinated, however, is a slippery slope—one that many restaurants, understandably, don’t want to go down. So Shule, like most others, is doing it on the honor system. He says the reaction to going maskless has been positive.
“In the short time since the all-clear, guests have been very excited to not have to wear masks. They are excited to tell us they are vaccinated. When guests come in wearing masks, we just assume they are not vaccinated and don’t ask … We try not to have discussions about either side of the issue, as we know this can be very politically charged and every guest has their reason for getting and not getting the vaccine. Our goal is to run a successful and safe business. We think this gives us the best chance to do so,” Shule says.
All of this is to say that yes, the question of to wear a mask or not to wear a mask to a restaurant is still confusing. But we should know by now that constantly changing rules, more pivots, and potential conflicts are all part of our new normal. The only sure way to know the restaurant’s policy on facial coverings is to ask about, and then to follow, their protocol. And remember: don’t be a maskhole.