Restaurants thrown back into chaos amid conflicting mask mandates

AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

The CDC’s long-overdue decision to recommend that vaccinated people should feel free to go maskless in most circumstances has wound up creating even more confusion for employers and workers, largely thanks to governors and mayors who have suddenly decided that “following the science” isn’t such a hot idea. This is particularly true in the bar and restaurant industry. Even while the mask mandate may be lifting at the federal level, several states and cities, including Maine and New Jersey, decided that Dr. Fauci suddenly wasn’t the paragon of wisdom they’d been told he was before. So in those locations, the mask mandates are remaining in place for now. That’s left restaurant owners struggling with how to handle disgruntled customers who show up at their eateries ready to enjoy some maskless dining, only to be told that they still have to mask up when not actively eating or drinking. The Washington Post interviewed some restaurant owners in Maine who are at a loss as to what to tell their customers and employees.

Jason Clay was excited on Thursday to hear about the new guidance from federal health officials telling vaccinated people they could ditch masks and social-distancing in most circumstances. “It’s the light at the end of the tunnel,” says the director of operations for Governor’s Restaurant and Bakery, which operates six locations throughout Maine.

But he knew right away that the news would prompt another reaction: confusion.

Maine still requires masking and social-distancing for indoor diners, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that state and local rules aimed at halting the spread of covid-19 would remain in place even as the federal standards loosened.

“We know that people don’t necessarily pay attention to the details, so when the CDC says it’s okay to go maskless, that’s a great path to putting it all behind us, but we know we’ll have to deal with it today,” he says.

There are multiple problems with how ending the mask mandates is being handled. As Ed Morrissey pointed out yesterday, telling the unvaccinated that they still have to wear masks, leading to situations where everyone may have to wear them in some circumstances, translates to needlessly punishing those who decided to get vaccinated. At this point, the odds of any fully vaccinated people developing symptomatic cases of infection are vanishingly low. If the unvaccinated want to take their chances, let them.

On top of that, as I pointed out earlier this week, these mandates for the unvaccinated are little more than thinly disguised efforts to blackmail the public. Don’t want to get vaccinated? Then you have to keep wearing a mask. A lot of people will be telling Joe Biden and the CDC to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine at this point. And there’s no way that we’re going to see people being arrested in droves over violations of masking rules. (I guess the “empty the jails” crowd was unavailable for comment on this issue.)

What we’re also seeing is the problematic nature of letting an agency with no enforcement powers whatsoever (the CDC) take the lead by only offering “guidelines.” The more mandate-happy governors and mayors were happy to cite the CDC as the reason they were imposing mask mandates. But now that Fauci has changed his tune, suddenly the CDC is suspect? Consider yourself as a late arrival to the club where many of us had long since given up on Fauci’s continual moving of the goalposts.

Getting back to the restaurant and bar situation, the owners the WaPo spoke with are fearing a return to the conditions that existed when the mask mandates first went into place last year. Bartenders and waiters should not be put in a position where they have to enforce an unpopular mandate. That led to physical altercations in many cases and a sharp reduction in tips. It’s bad enough that many eateries can’t tempt their workers back onto the job while the enhanced unemployment benefits are still flowing. But now they would be returning to a role where their job satisfaction is well below what it was during pre-pandemic times.

Some states ended their mask mandates weeks (if not months) ago and the “curve” of infections isn’t noticeably different than in the most tightly controlled states. It’s time to be done with this. The largest numbers of unvaccinated people are in the younger age brackets and they tend to be healthier, to begin with. If they want to get their antibodies by surviving the disease instead of through a syringe, good for them. Let them. The rest of us are ready to move on.