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Diners angry about masks and other coronavirus rules prompt training for restaurant workers

Six-plus months into the pandemic that has upended the way many businesses operate, videos of irate customers refusing to wear masks or maintain social distance are by now no novelty.

Restaurant workers have frequently borne the brunt of people objecting to policies put in place by their establishments or by local and state orders, with conflicts big and small – caught on viral video or mostly unnoticed – playing out in dining rooms around the country.

That reality, where shouting matches might be on the menu along with the evening’s steak special, prompted the National Restaurant Association on Sept. 21 to introduce training to help restaurant and hospitality workers defuse conflicts with patrons who balk – or worse. Since the start of the pandemic, the organization has been offering advice about issues from hand-washing techniques to packaging takeout. Increasingly, restaurant workers found themselves not just battling the virus, but their customers, too.

“We were hearing, ‘My employees need tactics on how to handle this, on how to handle the intensity,’” said Janet Benoit, vice president of learning and development for ServSafe, the association’s training and education program. “They needed some information and tools at their fingertips.”

In the free videos, workers are given advice explaining how to “de-escalate conflict” that seems to be common sense. Listen to the customer, the video instructs. Repeat back what you hear. Oh, and stay calm. “An angry guest isn’t necessarily mad at you,” the narrator intones. “They’re just mad.”

The training also anticipates several scenarios, including a diner who doesn’t want to wear a face covering, or a fight that might erupt between two customers. It also brings up the possibility that patrons might film a confrontation on their phones.

Benoit agrees that the keep-calm advice might seem like the kind of thing that functioning adults should already know. But given the fundamental changes in the restaurant experience since the beginning of the COVID-19 era, she figures, a little refresh might be in order.

“Sometimes, you need a good reminder of what that means in the face of a new context,” she said.

Of course, servers and other “front-of-house workers” have always had occasional static with customers: Maybe there’s a dispute about a bill, or a tipsy customer angry that he won’t be served another drink. But the pandemic has introduced an entirely new dynamic, with servers often policing how far apart people are dining or how large a party size can be.

A Colorado man last month was reportedly charged with harassment and trespassing after an incident in which he allegedly attacked his server over being asked to wear a mask. A teenage waitress at a Chili’s in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was allegedly attacked and her face bloodied this month by a group of women when she told them the party couldn’t sit together. Three women involved were charged with battery, according to local reports.

The restaurant association’s guidance comes just after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its own worker-safety guidance, urging workers not to argue or to force angry and violent people to comply with coronavirus policies. The guidance noted that assaults and threats were most likely in retail and service settings, such as restaurants, and it recommended that employers offer conflict-resolution training.

Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, said conflicts between customers and restaurant workers have often been caused by confusion, particularly in the early days of the pandemic, when various jurisdictions imposed different rules and enforcement was uneven. Ellis, whose organization represents bars and other venues that serve alcohol, began offering its own training to hundreds of members eager for constructive advice.

Ellis also said restaurant confrontations are typically fueled by politics: He said that Michigan is home to anti-mask organizations and to groups of citizens who patrol restaurants and report people they see violating coronavirus policies. “So where does that put all of us?” he asks. “Right in the middle.”

He said one of the most effective techniques has been asking customers to help out in a difficult time. Instead of disagreeing with their customers’ anti-mask stance, he said, some servers and owners have defused potentially fraught situations by appealing to their patrons’ sympathy for struggling businesses hit hard by the virus.

“They’ll say, ‘You might disagree with face masks, and that’s your right, but even though you might hate the government, I need you to help me stay open,’” he said. “Some people just want to be listened to, and they want to be part of the solution.”