What can, and should, you do?

It’s become increasingly commonplace for restaurants to require masks for entry. McDonald’s and Starbucks were among the early, large-scale adopters, but they were hardly the last.

For the most part today, restaurants are asking guests to wear masks everywhere but the table itself. Walking through the door, around the venue, heading to the bathroom, etc.

Pinstripes, a 13-unit eatertainment chain, reopened with employees dedicated to the exterior of restaurants to ensure consumers wore masks and to answer any questions, or offer complimentary face coverings if needed. The simple truth, though, is brands can share and devise all the messaging they want, yet there’s no guarantee anybody will read it before they show up.

Pinstripes also invested in ample outdoor cues, like wine barrels and curbside pickup signs, 12-inch circles to illustrate 6-foot spacing, a display that talks about “playing it safe” with an image of a mask, compete with Pinstripes’ policy on the matter.

And while the chain made a conscious effort to train employees on enforcing these rules, there are still likely to be hiccups. Just as there have been and will continue to be for restaurants of all service types nationwide.

So what do you do if a patron refuses to wear a mask? Is there a plan in place to handle the situation without allowing a confrontation to escalate? Sometimes just telling somebody to leave isn’t enough—it might actually be worse—unless you staff your restaurant with bouncers.

The National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Law Center, in tandem with law firm Jackson Lewis P.C., put together guidance for restaurants to follow when dealing with confrontational customers, or those who just left the house empty handed.

Let’s start with the obvious one: Are guests actually required to wear masks when coming into a restaurant?

This is something that goes beyond just whether or not the restaurant is requiring it. Being able to tell a patron, “your city demands it by law,” is a pretty easy line to deliver if a confrontation arises.

There are plenty of jurisdictions that require individuals to wear face coverings in public spaces, including restaurants. Here is an exhaustive list. It is rather detailed, making it pretty essential whiteboard material for any multi-unit operation. For instance, Colorado requires anybody over 10 to wear a face covering over their nose and mouth when entering or moving within any public indoor space. However, individuals who are seated at a foodservice establishment are exempt. Meanwhile Alaska, Florida, and Arizona (among others) have no statewide order, and Chicago’s order extends to people over 2 years of age. In other terms, there is no real uniformity coast-to-coast. Each location needs to dial in on local mandates.

There’s also the element of whether or not employers must require employees to wear face coverings when working. This, too, has its nuances. From the Association’s Restaurant Law Center: “Employers may require the use of such face coverings relying on the CDC guidance [unless there is an accommodation request which should be addressed on a case by case basis]. Some local jurisdictions, such as the County of San Diego, California, and the City of Laredo, Texas, are already requiring restaurant employees to cover their nose and mouth with a mask or another form of cloth face covering. In jurisdictions where it is required, restaurants that wish to remain open must ensure the use of the mandated face coverings by its employees.”

For more on this topic, plus what to do about temperature checks, check out this resource.

A guest refuses to wear their mask on constitutional grounds.

Everyone has seen an example of this, either in real life or in some corner of the internet. The reality is, guests and employees have no constitutional free speech rights in a private business or workplace, the Association said.

The First Amendment protects somebody’s right to free speech from infringement by the U.S. Government—not a private business. “Similarly, state constitutions do not create such rights. Thus, a restaurant can legally deny service to individuals that refuse to wear a mask for alleged Constitutional reasons,” the Association said.

It might not be easy to convince somebody of this, but it would be a start, at least, telling them the cold hard facts.

What if a guest says they can’t wear a mask because of a disability?

According to the Association, Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires restaurants to provide equal enjoyment of goods and services to individuals with disabilities. If a guest has a medical or disability-related condition that may require an accommodation, the restaurant must consider a reasonable solution to offer the customer. On the other side, the guest must let the restaurant know they need an accommodation if the need is not obvious. The Association said a restaurant should not request medical documentation when a guest asks for a public accommodation.

But here’s where it gets a bit complex. Restaurants don’t need to accommodate guests if doing so “would impede the businesses’ ability to safely provide its goods and services.” Under current CDC and prevention guidance, allowing unmasked patrons into a restaurant creates a health and safety risk. There’s also the asymptomatic risk (just because they don’t appear sick doesn’t mean they can’t spread it line of thought). And as a result, customers are required to wear masks or other suitable face coverings under state and local ordinances mandating masks.

Restaurants have a good faith basis to not accommodate an unmasked member of the public, disability or not. “Although, no-contact shopping alternatives should be considered and communicated to the guest where a disability is involved, such as allowing for a curbside order,” the Association said.

Essentially, a good way to approach this possibility is to have alternatives at the ready. “You must wear a mask to eat here.” “But, if you can’t, we will bring the food to you, with no extra charge.” Perhaps a coupon or some kind of freebie would be a good way to smooth things over in this scenario as well. The key being to have a plan ready in case, either way.

The threat of violence

There are videos circulating social media of a manager fighting patrons over a mask conflict. And there are plenty of other examples.

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Association said, employers have a duty to provide a safe workplace for employees. Restaurants should consider the impact threatening guest encounters on their premises could have on the safety of employees and guests, as well as business operations, it said.

Here are some steps to consider:

Like Pinstripes, start with clear and abundant signage. Before they enter the establishment.

The CDC recommends verbal announcements, signs, and visual cues upon entry. Some restaurants have taken to humor to get the word across. Others are going the employee-first approach. “Wear a mask to help keep our employees safe.” Things along those lines.

Just like in the disability conversation, having no-contact service options can diffuse possible altercations. The Association suggests providing the phone number for curbside pickup or delivery options on mask signage for guests who don’t want to comply.

Also like Pinstripes, having the ability to give away a mask has the potential to ease conflict. Although it naturally comes with a cost. “This may defuse the situation if the person simply forgot their mask and feels frustrated that he/she needs to return home or their car to retrieve a mask before entering,” the Association said.

Don’t leave employees in the lurch. Make sure they understand the restaurants’ policy not just on mask wearing, but also on how to handle dealing with combative guests. Employees shouldn’t be the instigators. They also shouldn’t attempt to apprehend resistant guests, block guests from entering or exiting the store, or physically force customers to leave, the Association said. Train them to remain calm, discreetly call security or local law enforcement.

In this, the Association notes mask enforcement should be approached like any other unique skill set inside a restaurant. Find the employees best suited to do so. “Staff have different skill sets; some are charming and disarming, while others are whizzes with numbers but have a gruff demeanor. The more pleasant the approach with non-compliant guests, the higher likelihood of gaining compliance,” the Association said.

It adds a softer approach with non-guest wearing customers is a preferable route to getting aggressive. Building that language into your staff manual is a key add in today’s environment.

“It may not always work, but this is about minimizing the issues when possible,” the Association added.

Feature, Leader Insights