Face masks are required in Colorado but restaurants struggle to enforce it

John Santos prepares pizza dough at Pizzeria Locale in Stapleton July 16, 2020. Governor Polis issued a statewide mask mandate Thursday requiring everyone age 10 and older to wear a mask while in public indoor spaces. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

As Gov. Jared Polis’ statewide mask mandate goes into effect, retail and restaurants have been on the frontlines of these conflicts for months. When trying to enforce mask policies, employees say they have dealt with customers spitting on them, using racial slurs and even threatening their lives.

It’s a painful situation for restaurants that are eager to welcome back customers after dealing with financial losses from coronavirus closures. But the message from public health and state officials is clear: without masks, cases will go up and businesses will shut down again. Under the new policy, individuals who refuse can be prosecuted for trespassing, and businesses that don’t comply can lose their licenses. 

Since restaurants started reopening at the end of May, owners and employees have taken to social media to describe altercations with customers. On June 29, Paul Tamburello, owner of Little Man Ice Cream, said one guest spit on a team member, and in a separate instance, another coughed all over the counter. Chris Fuselier, owner of Blake Street Tavern, has tweeted about multiple incidents with guests who refused to wear masks and said his management has had to call the police on one irate customer.

On Wednesday, video of an angry customer at Molly’s Spirits in Lakeside went viral, as employees repeatedly asked her to leave the store for refusing to wear a mask. In response, the customer called staff “Nazis in Nazi America.”

Back in May, a man shot an employee at a Waffle House in Aurora when told to wear a face covering.

Maria Tinajero is 21 years old and a waitress at the Mexican restaurant 4 G’s on Broadway. In an interview with The Denver Post, she described an encounter last week with two men who refused to wear masks. When she told them they would need to wear face coverings until they got to a table, they yelled at her and left. The men returned and berated her again, she said, and two hours later, one called the restaurant and told her to “go back to Mexico.”

“I just have to do my job,” she said. “I don’t come up with the laws, neither does my boss. We’re just trying to keep everyone safe. In the heat of the moment, I don’t know how I got the words to tell him that.”

The man’s racist remarks hurt, Tinajero said, but she knows masks are crucial to keep customers and staff safe. And she and her co-workers can’t afford to see the restaurant close again.

“I wish everyone would just do their part so we can get this stuff over with,” she said.

Katie Lazor, the executive director of Eat Denver, a network of independent restaurants across the city, said restaurants have been dealing with these conflicts for months. In the Eat Denver email listserv, she’s heard plenty of stories about customers yelling, throwing masks on the ground and pretending to cough on employees, adding that conflicts are often started by people in their 20s and those under the influence of alcohol.

Pizzeria Locale manager Victoria King, right, helps customer Eric Christopher and his son, Espen, 4, left, at the counter of the Pizzeria Locale July 16, 2020. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

She said fights over masks put people in the hospitality business in a difficult position because they want to make people feel comfortable and struggle to refuse service, Lazor said. But at the end of the day, it’s the law to wear masks inside businesses, and it’s not up for interpretation, she added.

“The responsibility of education and enforcement is falling on restaurants and retails,” Lazor said. “This is an ongoing battle with guests all day long.”

Simply put, customers have a choice, Lazor said: wear a mask and enjoy dining out, or don’t and watch restaurants shut down again.

Lazor added that some places have taken a firmer stance than others, which is likely to change with the new mandate.

Troy Guard, chef and owner of the TAG Restaurant Group, said he put signs all around his restaurants and provided staff with hand sanitizer, masks and wipes. Before the mask mandate, if customers arrived without a mask, they were offered a free one and if they refused, were seated anyway. Guard considers avoiding conflicts with guests to be another way to keep his employees safe, he said. After the mask mandate went into effect, the restaurant group amended its policy, and guests are now required to wear a mask when not seated at their table.

It’s his job to protect his employees, and in the current environment, avoiding conflicts with customers is the way to keep them safe, he said.

“It’s a new thing for everyone, and if we can all help each other remember to be safe, it goes a long way,” Guard said.

But Polis’ mandate aims to limit room for interpretation from now on. Pizzeria Locale has been ahead of the curve with its “No Mask, No Pizza” campaign, which started at the end of April. Chris Donato, brand manager for the local chain, said Pizzeria Locale has a clear policy, not a harsh one. From social media posts to signs posted in all locations, he’s communicated that masks are non-negotiable.

In addition to masks, Donato said Pizzeria Locale didn’t open its dining room until July 6, and at a lower capacity than required. The chain has even limited the number of online orders to avoid too many customers in a restaurant at once. In an already precarious time for restaurants, turning away business takes a toll, but Donato considers it an investment in safety.

Overall, Donato said customers have been understanding and grateful for the mask policy. He added that a clear message from the company helps the team, too, because people who won’t wear masks just won’t come to Pizzeria Locale.

“Our community will understand the seriousness of it and make sure to be respectful of essential workers who still need to go to work,” Donato said. “It’s disrespectful when people are on the frontlines and they’re wearing a mask and someone decides to show up without one.”


Updated July 20 at 1:18 p.m.The following corrected information has been added to this article: After the mask mandate went into effect, TAG restaurant group amended its mask policy and now requires guests to wear masks when not seated at their table.


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