The appeal of this approach is clear. Masking and unmasking repeatedly can be awkward, particularly when you’ve got a fork in one hand and a knife in the other. Besides, conversing in a mask is a bit like swimming in a jumpsuit. It can be done, but it takes more effort. If you have reason to believe everybody at your table is healthy, the temptation to talk the way you used to do, employing the full range of lower facial contortions from the closelipped smirk of an inside joke to the slack-jawed gape of astonishment, can be very strong.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has chided restaurants that flagrantly disregard social distancing and masking rules. A state task force has cited hundreds of establishments for violations, and suspended the liquor licenses of some, frequently when unmasked customers were standing in tight clusters.
Much less has been made of the official guidance on wearing masks while seated. It’s rare to find a restaurant that enforces, or even mentions, the advice, despite the preponderance of signs instructing diners how to pay through Venmo or bring up a menu by scanning a QR code. The downtown restaurant Frenchette is unusual for having a note on its website asking diners to wear masks “when any staff is table-side.” I went the other night. The only people in masks were the ones who worked there.
Another restaurant downtown, King, asks customers in person to wear masks while talking to servers. “We get the occasional rude response,” Annie Shi, one of the owners, wrote recently on Resy, “but most guests appreciate that we are taking care of our staff, and as result, of them.”
Other restaurant owners may not be aware of the health department’s advice. Or they may have heard about mask-hating thugs who’ve threatened mask-wearing workers in other parts of the country. Most likely, though, restaurateurs are simply afraid to do anything that might keep customers away. In a summer when a thunderstorm can wipe out a night’s revenue, every table counts.
The writer and editor Corby Kummer, whose Food and Society Program of the Aspen Institute collaborated with the James Beard Foundation to prepare detailed Covid-19 safety protocols for restaurants, is now working on what he calls a “code of conduct” for diners. The rules, which could be made a condition of placing a reservation, would be simple and few: Whether sitting indoors or out, don’t crowd the host stand or the restrooms, wear a mask when away from the table and comply with polite requests from the staff. Even these modest requests can make some owners nervous.