As COVID-19 vaccine distribution continues throughout Louisiana, restaurant owners are faced with a challenge: Are employees allowed to take off their mask?
Statewide mask mandates lifted April 28, but many restaurant owners, including Bistro Byronz and Pizza Byronz owner Emelie Alton, still require their staff members to mask up.
“We’re in the middle of investigating if we’re going to change that or not,” Alton says. “We will continue to encourage our staff to get vaccinated, but we won’t be making the leap to having it required.”
The predicament, Alton says, is that some staff members either can’t or won’t be able to receive the vaccination; however, she will adhere to customer requests for staff members to wear masks, even after the restaurant’s own restrictions are lifted.
Other remnants of the pandemic still exist around Alton’s restaurants, namely extra hand sanitizing stations and bar code menus. Both will stay, although Alton finds most customers request physical copies of the menu.
“This is a transitional period,” Alton says. “We still want to have both options available.”
Solera and Bin 77 owner Mitch Rodgers also won’t be requiring his employees to get the vaccination, saying “it’s their own personal information,” although he believes “most of the staff is completely vaccinated.” Now, his staff members go without masks unless specifically asked to wear one.
“If the patron would prefer us to wear a mask, we have some on hand just in case, but the general public is kind of very OK with not wearing a mask,” Rodgers says.
In Rodgers’ experience, “just a very small few” requested staff members wear masks. Otherwise, his restaurants have almost completely transitioned to post-pandemic life, operating at full capacity and even welcoming back live musical performances.
“By far, 99.5% of the tables are OK with the no masks, and will even make a comment like, ‘We’re happy to see your smiling faces again,’” Rodgers says. He also notes that there is usually a lot of airflow between Bin 77’s indoor dining area and the patio. Other cleanliness measures, like extra hand sanitizing locations throughout the restaurant, are also there to stay.
Pluckers Wing Bar server Walter Miller says he and other staff members were required to show proof of vaccination before being permitted to go mask-less at work. In his opinion, customers appreciated the extra precautions Pluckers took to ensure guests’ safety.
“We were required even past when everybody else was able to take their mask off just to ensure maximum safety for the guests,” Miller says. “We were only allowed to take it off recently if we could show proof we had been vaccinated.”
Lisa Boudreaux LeCoq of the Gilded Artichoke catering has a unique perspective on mask regulations through her roles as the Louisiana Restaurant Association Baton Rouge Chapter President and a local food entrepreneur. For the most part, LeCoq’s business has catered parties where “people are done with masks.”
“Not one of my clients has been angry or upset about not wearing a mask,” LeCoq says. “They’ve had the attitude of, ‘If you feel comfortable not wearing one, we’re OK with that.’”
Throughout the pandemic, LeCoq notes, there have been some positive developments within the restaurant industry: more to-go options and family-style delivery, just to name a few. But there’s still one lingering obstacle.
“We’re still having some issues with staffing because there’s still some of our employee base that are utilizing stimulus or unemployment,” LeCoq says. “When that runs out we’re going to see them come back in droves.”
Above all, LeCoq says she is happy to see the COVID-19 vaccine bring the community back together and pack local restaurants with reservations on weekend nights again. She especially appreciates the loyal customers who supported the restaurant community through buying gift cards, placing to-go orders and buying local throughout the pandemic.
In her eyes, the restaurant industry is “the lifeblood of any community.”
“You go into a restaurant when you have a good day or a bad day,” LeCoq says. “Now that more people have been vaccinated, there’s less restrictions with mask wearing and it’s up to the actual establishment. We’re starting to see our industry come back.”