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Nearly half of restaurants in downtown Charleston tourist area don't make staff wear masks

A Sipango server heads back into the East Bay Street restaurant

A Sipango server heads back into the East Bay Street restaurant. Hanna Raskin/Staff

Diners seeking lunch in the heart of downtown Charleston, long considered a culinary lodestar for the state, have a 40 percent chance of ending up at a restaurant where they might encounter a bare-faced server.

Of the 31 states which have reissued reopening plans for restaurants, South Carolina is one of just 11 which hasn’t mandated masks for food-and-beverage employees. In four of those states, restaurant workers are officially encouraged to wear them.

While S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association guidelines endorsed by the state say workers should be allowed to wear face coverings if they choose, the recommendations leave it up to owners to set their own standards.

And in the tourist district bounded by King, Broad, East Bay and Hassell streets, the apparent standard at seven out of 17 restaurants is no mask.

“In the spirit of hospitality, customer engagement and safe social interactions,” a spokeswoman for Charleston Hospitality Group says the company (Toast!, Eli’s Table, Tabbuli) has adopted a policy which allows its staff to “greet customers with a smile.”

In addition to Toast!, Carmella's Dessert Bar, RuRu’s Tacos + Tequila and Sipango were among the restaurants where at least one unmasked front-of-house worker was seen interacting with guests on Monday. By contrast, servers were uniformly masked at restaurants including SNOB, Hyman’s Seafood, Blossom and Millers All Day.

(While every restaurant in the area offering on-premise dining was observed two or more times between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., several restaurants couldn’t be evaluated because they haven’t yet reopened, don’t serve Monday lunch or didn’t appear to host any patrons during the established time frame.)

No restaurant customer observed over the two-hour period was wearing a mask.

“I felt like it was in the best interest of our staff,” Nate Thurston of Millers All Day says of his decision to decree employee masks. “It just helps limit the spread of germs.”

Unlike surgical masks, the cloth face coverings which have emerged as the restaurant industry standard do not filter out potentially hazardous particles. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends them in a restaurant setting because they prevent pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic workers from passing along the virus.

Still, Thurston is the first to acknowledge that masks aren’t the ideal accessory for a job that involves heavy lifting and constant walking. Studies estimate that restaurant servers burn about 185 calories an hour, making it the workout equivalent of a hatha yoga session.

“It does affect your breathing,” says Thurston, who worked with his sister, a nurse practitioner, to select masks which were relatively comfortable. “I had to coach (employees) 'you learn to breathe differently.' ”

Although he reached a different conclusion at Carmella's, owner Brian Solari concurs with Thurston's assessment.

"Being an open air facility, and it being quite warm recently, it would cause considerable breathing issues for my employees who are putting in very long hours," he says, adding that he was assured by multiple medical professionals that "masks were the least effective way to stop the spread."

"Masks are only useful when very close contact between people is unavoidable," he says. At Carmella's, the bar typically provides a barrier, without detracting from the lively feeling of the room. 

Thurston is sensitive to the concern that customers waited on by someone in a mask may feel as though they’re in a medical facility instead of a welcoming restaurant.

On the other hand, he points out, patrons may interpret the mask as confirmation of the precautionary measures they can’t see.

For much the same reason, Millers All Day will have a hand sink in the dining room when it reopens for indoor traffic — Thurston suspects people will take heart in watching their servers wash up.

He knows he feels more confident at restaurants where the employees are masked.

“It just gives me sense of the business being prepared,” he says.

At Charleston Hospitality Group, spokeswoman Laura Murphy says, “employees will have access to masks,” in keeping with South Carolina guidelines which specify that “employees should be allowed to wear gloves and masks if they so desire.”

Yet other states are much stricter, with Arkansas and California requiring employees and customers alike to mask up at restaurants. Masks are non-negotiable in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, where John Currence operates other locations of Big Bad Breakfast. Servers at his Meeting Street restaurant daily tie on black face coverings printed with the chain’s logo.

Masks are so pervasive from Maine to Alaska that The New York Times’ Kim Severson this week wrote, “It’s hard to know what the new face of American hospitality will look like. But it will likely be wearing a mask.”

According to Murphy, diners here aren’t bothered by a different dress code.

“Customer response has been positive,” she says, noting that severs will eventually be issued hand sanitizer to pin to their aprons.

New data released by OpenTable backs up Murphy’s assertion that South Carolinians are enthusiastic about returning to restaurants, regardless of their servers’ personal protective equipment. (Anecdotally, The New York Times quoted the first diner back at Soby’s New South Cuisine in Greenville as saying he was disappointed that he couldn’t see the face of the masked server who brought fried green tomatoes to his table.)

Since Feb. 18, OpenTable has shared state-by-state figures showing the percentage decline in year-over-year seated diners. In the vast majority of states where restaurants have reopened, average daily customer traffic between May 11 and May 18 was less than 15 percent of what was recorded last year. In South Carolina, though, restaurants served 25 percent as many people as they did in 2019.

Only Oklahoma drew a greater share of patrons, with business there down to about 30 percent.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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