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Mounting hostilities over masks in Charleston-area restaurants take toll on food community

Masked server

Servers at Basil restaurant wear masks as they work serving outdoor diners Tuesday, May 19, 2020, in Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

As diners’ opinions on the suitability of masks for restaurant settings this weekend hardened into bayonets to aim at their opposite number, the founder of a Facebook group which has emerged as the leading clearinghouse for Charleston restaurant information came close to shutting down her site.

“The mask-and-glove debate has become a third job,” Christine England of Lowcountry Eat Out! said on Tuesday in an announcement streamed on Facebook Live, during which she revealed new rules to get the group’s 23,000 members back on topic.

“If you’re going to comment ‘How do we eat with a mask on?’ or ‘Stay home if you don’t like it,’ there are like 3 million COVID groups where you can do that,” she continued. “The goal of this group is to support restaurants.”

In the wake of Memorial Day weekend, England said in a follow-up phone interview local restaurants need all the support their fans can muster.

England, whose husband is executive chef of Tavern & Table on Shem Creek, said industry members told her guests yelled at fellow guests for not wearing masks, mocked owners for declining to open their dining rooms and berated servers for failing to accommodate their requests for hard-to-get items, such as steak atop a vegetarian salad.

“It’s gotten more and more hostile,” England said. “People are getting more vocal and people are getting more threatening. I had a couple dozen restaurant (people) reach out, and they all said the same thing: This last week has been the worst week of their lives.”

While England says some hospitality professionals are willing to pin blame on an influx of out-of-towners, the consensus is rancor was building “before they even got here.”

That was England’s impression, gleaned from the tenor of comments in her Facebook Group.

Just prior to the mandated closure of restaurants, England launched Lowcountry Eat Out! as a user-generated guide to Charleston-area takeout options. The site’s immediate success led to a local television appearance, which England suspects led to “more outside people” steering the community’s conversation.

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By Sunday, it took only 10 minutes for a post from a downtown Charleston restaurant manager seeking input on mask policies to devolve into “the f-bomb capital of the world.”

“You know in Footloose where they’re burning the books?” England said, referencing the 1984 film’s scene of townspeople torching library books in protest of what they perceive as sinful behavior. “I feel like I turned (group members) into those book-burning people.”

England on Monday was driving home from Florida when a post describing the lack of masks at The Kickin’ Chicken as a “bonus” incited so much uproar that she couldn’t listen to her music. The alert signals of new messages drowned it out.

Although England has extensive experience with the restaurant sector, she never imagined the reopening of restaurants would play out this way. She envisioned restaurants creeping back toward normalcy in phases, with customers tolerant of changes necessitated by new health guidelines and glitches in the food supply.

“What I didn’t see coming was ‘I want it like it was in the old days and everyone else should just stay home,’ ” England said.

As England sees it, customers should patronize restaurants which conform to their mask opinions and not bother with the rest. But she said many diners now see themselves as saviors of an industry they’ve heard is on the brink of failure and expect to be treated as such.

Even if their demands for masked servers conflict with the servers’ desire for comfort in 90-degree heat.

Even if their demands for unmasked servers conflict with the servers’ stance on safety, particularly in places which are hosting hundreds of strangers on a given day. (Tavern & Table, for example, sat 1,221 people on Saturday, according to England’s Facebook Live feed.)

Owners desperate to keep their guests and employees happy are “petrified” by the dynamic, England said, because, unlike a Facebook group, a restaurant can’t just be turned off until strong feelings blow over.

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

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