While it’s not clear when the pandemic will end, one thing is now certain: wearing a face mask helps prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially while in public or indoors. However, for restaurant workers who must wear masks several hours a day, finding just the right face covering to provide both comfort and proper protection from the virus are key.
The current state pandemic requirements no longer include capacity limits for Georgia restaurants. Restaurants must only allow for six feet distance between tables and bar seats or install barriers between seating arrangements. Front-of-house or customer-facing employees, including hosts, servers, bartenders, and food runners, are required to wear face masks during their shifts.
So, what do restaurant workers look for when determining the type of mask to wear during a shift? For most, it comes down to comfort with the ability to still speak clearly.
At Nakato in Atlanta’s Morningside neighborhood, masks worn by its staff sport a traditional Japanese pattern known as Asanoha. The geometric print is reminiscent of overlapping hemp leaves, and is believed to ward off harm. Server Kay Yon finds Nakato’s masks both stylish and comfortable to wear for long periods of time.
“The Nakato masks actually wrap around your head, so that’s a little bit more secure, and it also doesn’t hurt your ears,” he says. Unlike disposable masks, Yon finds these cloth masks don’t irritate his skin or cause acne breakouts.
Nakato sells its masks online for $20, with funds going to the restaurant’s employees.
Some Atlanta restaurant workers find speaking all day in cloth masks challenging. Lindsay Ferdinand, assistant general manager and beverage manager for Muss & Turner’s in Smyrna, prefers wearing disposable masks over cloth face coverings while at work.
“One of my biggest things is when I’m talking to people in the big thick cloth [masks], I feel like I lose my breath in those,” Ferdinand says. “When I’m talking a lot, the disposable ones are a lot better.” Ferdinand does quite a bit of speaking in her job, including talking with staff during line-up before service and interacting with restaurant patrons throughout her shift.
Valerie Jones, floor manager of Rev Coffee shop in Smyrna, prioritizes practicality over style. Like Yon, she prefers wearing a cloth mask at work, but found customers were having difficulty understanding her when she spoke in a cloth mask. She now wears a disposable mask during her shifts at Rev, which allow her to speak more clearly with customers.
For Jones, she understand that wearing a mask for long periods of time isn’t ideal, but she recognizes the sense of security it provides her and appreciates when Rev Coffee customers wear their masks in the shop. “It reminds me while I’m on shift that other people are out there trying to take my health and wellness into consideration, and that in turn makes me want to be mindful, too.”
When Buckhead fine dining establishment Atlas reopened for dine-in service this summer, the Tavistock Group restaurant supplied employees with black face masks embellished with the company’s logo. “We were able to get really good material. You wouldn’t necessarily be able to blow out a candle through your mask,” says head sommelier Sam Gamble. “However, it’s still flexible enough that it will cover the entirety of your face, but also allow you to speak to your guest, where they can hear you.”
Prior to reopening in July, the Atlas staff underwent training on tonality and learning to express themselves using the upper part of the face. One exercise included saying words with a pencil placed horizontally between their teeth, mimicking speaking from behind a mask and encouraging employees to enunciate their words more clearly.
“You have to make up for the nonverbal communication and body posture in the way you’re expressing your eyebrows, and the way you’re maintaining eye contact,” Gamble says of speaking to restaurant patrons while wearing a mask. “We have to make facial expressions on the top part of our forehead. Raising our eyebrows, lowering our eyebrows.”
Gamble says some diners have taken notice of the Atlas staff speaking more clearly and using these new facial techniques and appreciate the extra effort made during service.
Regardless of which type of mask a restaurant worker prefers to wear (with the exception of neck gaiters, which offer debatable effectiveness,) it’s paramount that they — and restaurant patrons — wear masks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
“The reason why we ask everyone to wear a mask [during the pandemic,] even if you have symptoms or you don’t have symptoms, is we know you can be asymptomatic,” Atlanta physician Nadeen White says. She notes that just one sneeze can quickly spread the virus, even if a person isn’t experiencing any symptoms and doesn’t feel sick.
While N95 respirators and surgical masks are the best form of protective face coverings, those should be left for medical professionals. “For the average person, wearing a cloth mask is fine. A lot of them now will have slits in them where you can put a filter in, which offers a little bit more protection.” The most important thing for restaurant employees and patrons to remember when wearing a mask, White says, is that it covers the mouth and nose.
Restaurant employees will likely be wearing masks during their shifts well into 2021, with many restaurants requiring diners to do the same when not eating or drinking. As uncomfortable as wearing masks may be, the protection masks provide people right now during the health crisis cannot be overstated.
For more information on restaurant-approved masks, check out these companies.