311 Masks

Niki Venoble, manager of the 311 Pub, pauses for a photo by several of the signs advising customers of current regulations regarding face coverings in Brentwood, Aug. 11. The bar recently took to social media to advise that customers who refuse to wear a face mask will be asked to leave. 

Bay Area residents are about to enter their sixth month of living under a pandemic-related health order of one form or another, and there are indications that some are growing weary of complying with an evolving set of restrictions.

Locally, businesses already facing any number of challenges are reporting a small but persistent percentage of customers who actively resist wearing a face covering in situations where they are required by county health order. Their actions put business owners in the uncomfortable position of having to either convince the customer to comply or turn paying customers away.

One business, 311 Oak Street Pub in downtown Brentwood, recently took to social media with a message for customers and potential customers stating that those who cannot or will not follow the rules will be asked to leave. Niki Venoble, manager of 311 Oak Street Pub, said that dealing with customers who refuse to wear a mask is a daily occurrence.

“There’s a lot of people that are just over the whole situation, and they don’t want to follow the rules anymore regardless of what they are,” she said. “They’re the ones we were having a little bit more problem with. Whether we feel the same way or not, to keep this business operating, we have to follow the rules. That was where we just had to start laying down the law and it came to the point where if you don’t value this business enough to follow the rules that we have to follow, then unfortunately you have to go somewhere else right now.”

Health officials at every level have urged the use of face coverings since the start of the pandemic. Their required use in the county didn’t start until Contra Costa Health Services (CCHS) issued Order No. HO-COVID19-22 on July 5. That order required wearing a face covering when within six feet of a person who is not a household member and when waiting in line to enter a business. It also placed the responsibility on business owners to: prohibit anyone not wearing a mask from entering the business; refuse service to anyone not wearing a face covering and attempt to remove anyone not wearing a mask from the premises.

CCHS issued additional regulations for outdoor dining less than a week later in an appendix to the general shelter-in-place order. It required that customers wear a face covering while on the premises except while eating or drinking. That included while ordering, before the meal and drinks are served and while moving to or from the table.

“The rules keep changing,” Venoble said. “There’s nobody there to tell us what they are. It’s our responsibility to go out and search for these rules. There’s so many places to search it’s very unclear what to follow.”

Down the street at Brentwood Craft Beer and Cider, co-owner Joey Nardone said the majority of customers there readily comply with the rules, but there are exceptions.

“A small percentage of people, just a few each day, will not want to approach the checkout table with a mask, will not want to come into the building to use the restroom with a mask,” he said. “They don’t want to do business with us if they have to follow any of the rules set forth by the state and the county. They simply walk away.”

Arguing with customers is time consuming for Nardone and his staff, and he said it impacts the morale of his business’ 14 employees. But failure to enforce the health order means risking fines and a potential loss of his business license. It also presents a health risk to his employees and other customers.

“We don’t want to argue with anybody,” Nardone said. “We’re very customer-friendly. We’re customer-service oriented. We’re here to serve people and give you what you need and want. But then when you argue with us over something we can’t control, you’re wasting everybody’s time and you’re bringing down our spirit. It’s just not good for the vibe. It’s not a good thing.”

Around the corner at Roadees Cafe, Cherie and Chandra Mathews have had a different experience. They report having had no problems with customers attempting to skirt the rules.

“I would say our customers are pretty good about it,” Chandra Mathews said. “If they don’t have a mask, they usually wait outside to be respectful to the other customers. Most people have masks, though. Everyone keeps their six-foot distance. I would say, overall, we haven’t had any issues.”

With no end to the pandemic in sight, it’s likely that business owners will be dealing with this issue into the foreseeable future.

“I wish (people) would understand that if they want us to be around when all of this is said and done, they have to follow the rules now,” Venoble said. “Or else, they’re not going to have their favorite watering hole or their new favorite lunch venue to come to. It’s a constant battle.”