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NYC Restaurants Grapple With CDC’s New Mask Mandates

The CDC’s latest guidelines pose a conundrum for restaurants that are still enforcing mask-wearing policies

Three people sit at a white picnic bench outdoors, eating and drinking
The state will no longer mandate mask-wearing or social distancing for fully vaccinated New Yorkers starting May 19
Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images
Erika Adams is the editor of Eater Boston.

In an abrupt announcement last Thursday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance that fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks or remain socially distant in most outdoor and indoor environments — including restaurants. On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo confirmed that New York would be adopting the CDC’s relaxed regulations starting on Wednesday, May 19, the same day that NYC restaurants and bars can go to 100 percent indoor capacity.

“Individual private venues still have the ability to add additional guidelines to the state guidelines and the CDC guidelines,” Cuomo said in a Monday press conference. “But, for our part, we’re adopting the CDC and we’re saying let’s open.”

The unexpected shift in federal and state regulations has left NYC restaurants and bars on their own to reinforce their mask policies, which many still favor as a measure of public health safety for staff and customers. The CDC’s latest guidelines regarding mask wearing has highlighted an issue, especially during the past few days, that’s blurred the lines of politics, science, and culture — from concerns over new variants to party allegiance.

Over the weekend, prior to Cuomo’s announcement, restaurants and bars including Hunky Dory in Crown Heights, Judy and Punch in Astoria, and Chilo’s in Bed-Stuy and Greenwood, posted messages on Instagram reinforcing that they still expect customers to wear masks regardless of the CDC update.

The messages weren’t always effective. At Chilo’s, across from Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, general manager Carlos Cruz repeatedly witnessed customers walking up to the restaurant this past weekend without masks on. When Cruz and his staff directed customers to put on masks, he said some people claimed that they simply didn’t have a mask with them — a response that Cruz hadn’t heard much prior to last weekend. “It was the first time that we have been providing masks [to customers] since the start of the pandemic,” Cruz says.

Similar scenes played out at Chilo’s other location in Bed-Stuy, and Mayfield in Crown Heights, both spaces owned by the same restaurant group and managed by Cruz. Some customers were “combative,” Cruz says, and others were openly confused that the restaurant was still requiring masks in light of the new CDC guidance, despite ‘no mask, no service’ signage posted at each restaurant. “People were rolling their eyes, not understanding,” Cruz says. “It was exhausting.”

Furthermore, about 20 percent of Cruz’s staff haven’t been fully vaccinated yet, and he is anxious about employee health safety amid the relaxed mask regulations. “People are still getting sick,” Cruz says. “I know cases are going down, but it is still happening.”

In the East Village, vegetarian hotspot Superiority Burger posted a notice on Instagram on Saturday specifying that masks were still required for service. Owner Brooks Headley says that for the most part, people followed the restaurant’s rules. “Occasionally, we will get a ding dong that wants to order maskless and will huff and puff when we (always politely!) ask ’em to put one on,” Headley said in an email. “I mean, if you really wanna have a tantrum while ordering food then expect us to mercilessly make fun of you back in the kitchen after you leave. Comedy gold for days!”

Others say that customers didn’t need any reminders to keep their masks on. Elizabeth Yee, the owner of Tonii’s Fresh Rice Noodle in Manhattan’s Chinatown, said that she didn’t have any issues with enforcing mask policies or social distancing over the weekend. “I’m in the heart of Chinatown and people in the neighborhood are locals who look after each other,” Yee says. “Wearing a mask with other people now just seems respectable. Just like greeting people, wearing a face mask is just common courtesy now. At least that’s how I’ve been seeing it.”

Headley underscored the same point, echoing Yee’s belief that masks are a polite sign of respect toward others. Superiority Burger will “absolutely” keep its own mask mandate in place for the foreseeable future, he says, regardless of the change in state guidelines later this week. “Politicization of masks is just so so so deeply silly,” Headley says. “I spent three months in Tokyo pre-Covid and folks there wear masks as a courtesy. It’s a politeness thing.”

But for some establishments, ongoing mask mandates will likely be an uphill battle with customers. Cruz of Chilo’s and Mayfield says that the restaurants will continue requiring masks regardless of state regulations, “for everyone’s mental and physical health.” However, he’s bracing for customer pushback. Diners have already misinterpreted other relaxed state regulations — including the elimination of the dining curfew, and no longer having to order food with alcohol — as new mandates for all businesses. Cruz and his staff are continually reiterating that Chilo’s and Mayfield still close before midnight, and they still can — and do — require customers to buy food with their to-go alcohol purchases.

“We are more stressed than in the beginning of the pandemic,” Cruz says. “It’s really hard that people don’t seem to care.”