Let's Talk About Masks in Restaurants

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Shakers masks

A version of this article first appeared in the bulletin of the Central Florida Tourism Collective.

Nearly 30 years ago, I had front-row seats to “Angels in America” on Broadway. It was a moving performance, and out of the nearly to a hundred shows I’ve seen in New York, one of the most memorable.

But I’m remembering it for something other than the stellar writing and superior acting these days. From my up-close vantage I could see that when the actors spoke, a spray of aerosolized spit emanated from their mouths, enhanced and made more noticeable by the overhead lights. I remember thinking that the actors must be drenched by the end of the play (and those of us in the front row were in the splash zone, too, especially when Ron Leibman as Roy Cohn was nearby).

Actors, of course, project their voices so to be heard in the back row of the balcony, which undoubtedly increases the amount of spray. But it doesn’t matter whether you’re on stage or speaking up in a crowded room: When we speak, we spew.

So then, let’s talk about wearing face masks in restaurants.

For some reason, the topic has become polarizing, with passionate factions on both sides of the debate. It’s politicized, too. Ask diners whether they’re pro- or anti-mask and you may as well be asking who they’re voting for in November.

I understand some of the controversy. The anti-maskers argue that face coverings won’t protect someone from getting the virus. Pro-maskers think of them as worth a try and better than constantly spraying Lysol toward anyone who speaks to them.

There’s a meme that’s been going around social media that explains the effectiveness of masks. It says that if we all run around without pants and someone pees on our leg, our leg gets wet. If we put on a pair of jeans and someone pees on our leg, it doesn’t get quite as wet. But if the pee-er is wearing jeans, most of it will stay with him. So, better if we all wear masks. Also jeans.

Personally, I feel comforted by seeing a staff member wearing a mask when I pick up my takeout. It tells me that restaurant management is taking necessary precautions. It might be “safety theater,” but I feel more at ease.

Of course it’s more difficult for the diner to wear a mask in the restaurant, though it occurred to me that it would have been a lot easier to maintain my anonymity all of those years if I’d just worn a mask when dining out.

And by the way, I’m not yet dining out, only dining in. Even though Phase 1 of the reopening guidelines allows restaurants to serve in-house diners at 25 percent of capacity, I will not be among them. At least for now. I prefer to err on the side of caution.

And apparently I’m not alone. Of the restaurants that have started to allow diners back into the dining room, none that I’m aware of has stopped offering takeout and delivery.

Even a certain Winter Park restaurant that had reportedly taken the stand that none of its employees may wear a mask when serving guests, even if they would like to.

One of my readers, angry about the restaurant’s decision, wrote to me and said I should go and dine there and write about it.

Um, no, thanks.

That restaurant, by the way, was Hillstone. And according to its website: “Current orders require our staff to wear masks. Other guests may not choose to wear masks based on their personal preferences. We ask that you respect other people’s choices as we are asking them to respect yours. If this is a concern, we hope you will join us at a later date.” (This follows a recent court order in Texas that ruled the Hillstone restaurants in that state must allow staff members to wear a mask if they so wish.) The general manager at the Hillstone in Winter Park verified that all staff are currently wearing masks but would not comment on any previous policy.

I’ve seen the trajectory. A server standing next to the guests table is usually standing above them – just like actors on a stage above the audience. Spray particles go out and down.

We’ll all be back dining in restaurants just like before, I’m sure of it. In the meantime, I’ll continue writing about my takeout experiences.