St. Louis restaurants struggle to find balance after mask mandates end
On Thursday, May 14, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surprised many business owners by announcing that fully vaccinated adults could resume indoor and outdoor activities without masks or social distancing; St. Louis city and county governments were quick to follow, allowing local restaurants and bars to operate normally for the first time in over a year. Eleven days earlier, on May 3, both the city and county allowed bars and restaurants to return to full capacity and declared that even 3 a.m. bars could return to their regular hours of operation.
In light of the CDC’s unexpected announcement, some restaurateurs were quick to push ahead, allowing vaccinated employees and customers to stop wearing masks immediately. Steven Fitzpatrick Smith, owner of The Royale, listened intently as both the CDC and the city of St. Louis changed their policies, and consulted with some local doctors and friends about what to do. “I listened to the science before, and I listened to the science then,” he said of eased restrictions. “There’s a lot of confusion, because we’ve just been through a traumatic event, and I’ve had to make some hard decisions.” He decided to let unmasked people who were vaccinated roam freely in his establishment.
Some remained skeptical of his choice, so Smith invited a friend who works in the ICU and in immunology at Barnes Jewish Hospital for a Q-and-A at The Royale, which he said made his employees feel much more comfortable; after, about half of his vaccinated servers and bartenders felt safe enough to stop wearing masks while working. “Some of them were pretty uncomfortable at first. They brought up a lot of things,” he said. “I’m not as eloquent as a doctor who studies this stuff, so I’m not going to try to be like a doctor here to explain it to people. Listen to local and national doctors. I’m going to follow the science and not social pressure.”
Still, Smith is being cautious and has been from the start – for most of last summer, his usually crowded bar and patio were totally closed. “I erred on the side of caution more than almost anybody, I think,” he said. And though he’s reopened the patio, he knows that many St. Louisans have yet to catch up mentally and emotionally to the moving goalposts, which he’s very sensitive to. “It’s a normal human thing to want to say, ‘I’m not going to stop doing something that’s making us safe, just because there was an announcement made,’” he explained. “I understand why people are in a different place on it. It makes sense.” But for those ready to head back into the world without a mask, The Royale is prepared to receive them. “We do have a beautiful outdoor that’s super safe, so if people are comfortable, they can come in in almost any fashion,” Smith promised. “If the science changes, which it could, I’ll make another adjustment as well.”
Popular bar and metal brunch spot The Crow’s Nest responded to the CDC’s announcement similarly. “We made it optional for vaccinated people and we are doing that on the honor system, which probably doesn’t work, but that’s how we’re doing it,” said co-owner Eliza Coriell, laughing. To her, requiring masks in a restaurant where people are eating and drinking just doesn’t seem efficient. “To wear a mask at Schnucks or the bank, that makes sense,” she explained. “But at a restaurant, you already have it down 90% of the time, so to put it on to walk to the bathroom doesn’t actually make anybody safer.”
Coriell and partner Kenny Snarzyk closed The Crow’s Nest until the staff was vaccinated, at which point she felt comfortable reopening. She said that by then, her staff wasn’t too concerned about their safety, so it made sense to ease the restrictions when the local government allowed it. “Our staff was already waiting on people that weren’t wearing masks, because they’re seated and they’re not wearing them, so I don’t think our staff felt any more or less about it than they already felt,” she said. “Only about 50% of them chose to take their masks off.”
The new rules have made Coriell, like many, contemplate what it might mean when they put on a mask today. “It sounds silly, but in my head I was going, ‘If I wear my mask, are people going to think I’m some kind of anti-vaxxer who doesn’t want the vaccine?’” she explained. As far as her customer base goes, she hasn’t had any issues with customers refusing to comply. “I know some of the neighboring restaurants have had a lot of blowback. Our business model made a lot of sense to not require them anymore,” she said. With indoor dining going full speed ahead and a new patio coming soon, The Crow’s Nest is almost back to normal, the only serious loose end being the absence of the restaurant’s hyper-popular metal brunch, which Coriell said will return soon.
Unlike The Royale and The Crow’s Nest, celebrated lunch spot Balkan Treat Box is still requiring masks inside when customers aren’t eating. Co-owner Loryn Nalic believes it’s important to keep the rules in place to protect the community as well as her staff, which isn’t fully vaccinated. “We have a lot of elderly clientele,” she said. “It just feels a bit too soon, in terms of going from one thing to the next. I think it’s something we’ll have to ease into.” When the CDC’s newest recommendations came out, Nalic had a candid conversation with her team in order to decide what to do. “When it was lifted, we talked to front-of-house staff, and it was unanimous across the board that everybody felt more comfortable being masked at this point. They're comfortable, and that makes us comfortable.”
Maintaining a strong and healthy staff is a major priority for Nalic. “Our staff is so small that we kept them on all through Covid,” she explained. “It seemed hard for a while, and like a bad business decision. It was something (co-owner) Edo (Nalic) and I talked about a lot, but now we’re happy we did it.” Nalic pointed out that because staffing shortages have hit the industry so hard recently, it’s even more important that Balkan Treat Box has been able to keep largely the same employees throughout the past year; continuing to make sure they were safe in return was important to her. “We would be in a completely different spot if we had to hire a new staff, '' she said. “We’re good because we kept everybody.”
In spite of Nalic’s efforts to help her team stay safe until they’re all vaccinated, she hasn’t been so lucky herself; earlier this year, she contracted a particularly bad case of Covid and is just now starting to recover. “I ended up in the hospital for around a week, and then I got home and was on oxygen for about a month and a half. Our team held it down through the crazy time,” she said. “It was terrifying. I cannot believe that happened.”
Not only has her experience with Covid made her more sensitive to those around her who aren’t vaccinated, it’s made her intimately familiar with the gravity of the situation in general. “People say it’s not real and they don’t believe it. But when you’re a young, healthy woman used to working hard, long hours on your feet, and then you’re hospitalized for no apparent reason, it becomes very real very quick,” she said. “I think it’s great now that we’re looking at it and more people are getting vaccinated.” In the meantime, diners uncomfortable wearing masks have the option to order their food to-go from the restaurant’s website or dine on the patio.
At Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co. the should-we-shouldn’t-we debate took a few days, according to general manager Alex Klingseisen. “When the mandate first lifted, it was really hard for us to navigate,” she said. “We had a few situations on the first day where people came out without masks and it became a disagreement. They were like, ‘Oh, well I just watched the news this morning and the mandate was lifted.’” She had to explain to them that if they wanted to dine at Peacemaker, they still had to wear a mask. But she had four more interactions like that later in the evening, and then even more the following night, so she and owner Kevin Nashan decided to stop requiring guests to wear masks. “It’s one of those things where if you start policing those things, it can get bad for business and cause altercations that you’ll have to apologize for later,” she said, wistfully. “It’s such a weird time.”
The change resulted in a necessary conversation with her staff. “We had masks for a full week after that was lifted,” she explained. “A few servers had concerns. We approached it very slowly in both restaurants – at Sidney Street Cafe [Nashan’s fine dining restaurant], all the staff are still wearing masks, even if they’re vaccinated.” At Peacemaker, however, unvaccinated servers must mask up, while vaccinated employees can choose not to. In Klingseisen’s estimation, 75% are still wearing them, including some who are vaccinated.
For most restaurants, it’s been difficult to strike a balance between employees that want to be safe and customers who are attempting to follow the guidelines they’re seeing on TV and reading about in newspapers. “Every day is different, especially in the restaurant industry,” Klingseisen reflected. “We’re trying to navigate our way through this pandemic, and all these people come in and think they’re educated and know what they’re talking about, which is fine. But every institution has its own rules.” She’s not wrong – in a country where restaurants have to take into account both the CDC and their local government’s guidelines, as well the feelings and concerns of their staff and customers, making the right choice means walking an incredibly fine line. Most are simply doing the best they can.
Now, Peacemaker’s staff is comfortable working the floor, which is operating at about 50% capacity. “For me, I don’t feel uncomfortable at all,” Klingseisen said. “I feel very safe, and I constantly communicate to staff, ‘Let me know if you don’t feel well or if you have symptoms. Don’t worry about us being understaffed – we’ll figure it out.’ The last thing I want is for somebody to be sick. It’s all about communication.”
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