As dining rooms slowly reopen, owners are scrambling to reduce risks and reassure customers with an array of gear. Face coverings lead the way.

By Kim Severson

  • May 18, 2020

ATLANTA — The other night I ate in a steakhouse. I had never been so happy to see a wedge salad in my life.

I hadn’t been in a restaurant since March 15, a few days before Atlanta’s mayor ordered all dining rooms to close. On April 27, Georgia became the second state, after Alaska, to allow restaurants to reopen since the pandemic hit. Chops, a 31-year-old temple of expense-account dining in the city’s Buckhead neighborhood, was one of the first to jump back into the business.

My waiter, Roberto Velasco, seemed as happy to be at work as I was to be sitting in a restaurant. At least he seemed happy. It was hard to tell behind his mask.

For many people, the notion of eating in a restaurant still seems terrifying. It did to me. I sat at a table in the back and wondered if the coronavirus was floating down through the cool conditioned air, or if one of the diners ordering cabernet at a table nine feet away from was me a carrier. And are you kidding me with that valet service?

But Mr. Velasco’s mask, along with his constant trips to a very visible bottle of hand sanitizer, eased my anxiety. By the time a medium-rare rib-eye and a dish of asparagus arrived, I felt as dreamy as Dorothy in a field of poppies.

In fits and starts around the country, restaurants are beginning to reopen, guided by a hodgepodge of federalstate, and local laws and recommendations that seems to shift daily. Restaurant owners are left to devise their own practices, puzzling out how to minimize the health risk, and reassure some customers without alienating others.

Against that backdrop, it’s hard to know what the new face of American hospitality will look like. But it will likely be wearing a mask.

The face mask is the most ubiquitous, and perhaps divisive, tool in an arsenal of protective measures, like disposable menus and plastic partitions, that restaurants are incorporating into an emerging culture of pandemic hospitality.

The mask has become standard equipment from the highest levels of American dining to the lowest. Burger King executives are reviewing designs for masks that might become a standard part of the uniform. At the Inn at Little Washington, a Rappahannock County, Va., restaurant with three Michelin stars, the chef Patrick O’Connell has ordered custom-made masks stamped with the smiles of Marilyn Monroe and George Washington, in anticipation of a May 29 opening.

“People need to get out, obviously, and they don’t want to walk into an atmosphere that increases their anxiety,” he said. “They want something to dispel the period we are living with.”

(Mr. O’Connell is going to even greater lengths: To help alleviate the barren look of a restaurant at half-capacity, as the state requires for social distancing, he’ll fill the empty chairs with mannequins dressed in 1940s attire. “I’ve always loved mannequins,” he said.)

For some diners, seeing staff members wearing masks is a comfort. For others, the masks provoke anxiety, he said. If guests ask to be waited on by someone without a mask, and the waiter is willing, the restaurant will accommodate them.

“We invite all of our guests to have fun on their own terms,” Mr. O’Connell said. “It is always our ultimate goal to be healers. We’ve created a sanctuary, a place which is nurturing, and a mask for some people is a symbol of that and for others, it is not.”

Masks can be a political flashpoint. On Mother’s Day, hundreds of people without masks crowded into C & C Breakfast & Korean Kitchen in Castle Rock, Colo., south of Denver, for a protest party organized by the owners, who said the state government had overstepped by limiting restaurants to takeout and delivery, and requiring workers to wear face masks. The state health department closed the restaurant the next day.

In Texas, masks are recommended but not required, although some local laws are stricter. The Hillstone Restaurant Group, which runs 45 restaurants in several states, decided that its Texas servers would not wear masks in part because the face wear didn’t match the style of service. A server sued; a judge issued a temporary restraining order and is expected to make a final ruling on May 20. That, and growing pressure on social media, led to a shift in the policy.

“Guests and staff members who wish to wear a mask are free to do so,” reads a statement the company posted last week on its website. “Other guests and staff members may choose to not wear masks based on their personal preference and we ask that everyone respect those decisions.”

Rick Davis, a chief executive at the accounting firm Elliott Davis, would prefer his waiter not to wear a mask. He secured the very first reservation at Soby’s New South Cuisine, in Greensville, S.C., when it reopened on May 11. He couldn’t wait to eat an order of the restaurant’s signature fried green tomatoes. He only wished he could have seen the face of the person who served it to him.

“I personally would have felt just fine if they hadn’t worn masks,” he said. “I understand why they were doing it, but a big part of dining in restaurants is that you have a warm experience that is sometimes about more than the food. It’s hard to deny the fact that seeing your server’s face is part of that.”

Mr. Davis didn’t wear a mask in the restaurant, and none of my fellow diners at Chops steakhouse did, either.

But masks are part of what made Tonia Wilson feel comfortable when she sat down in Goldbergs Fine Foods in Atlanta last Thursday to eat an order of corned beef hash.

She had worn a mask when she walked in and was glad that Ola Garcia, her server, wore one, too. Both had their temperatures checked when they arrived, Ms. Garcia before she started her shift and Ms. Wilson at the door.

“I don’t eat just anywhere, and I am not going to other places that have opened,” Ms. Wilson said. “But I’ve been here enough, and I see what they’re doing with the cleaning and the gloves and the masks to know I’m safe.”

Restaurants are experimenting with a number of ways to keep diners and employees safe and signal that sanitation is taken seriously. An Ohio breakfast spot hung washable clear plastic shower curtains between tables. One Atlanta restaurant requires servers to change into different-colored gloves each time they head back to a table, to assure diners that the gloves are fresh.

For other diners, all the masked waiters and plexiglass dividers in the world wouldn’t get them into a restaurant yet.

“It’s not about trusting them, it’s about trusting the idiots who are coming in,” said Dale Benerofe, a health care worker in Atlanta who used to eat out two or three times a week. “I want restaurants to open up. I really do. But not now. It’s too stressful.”

Even Danny Meyer, who wrote a book on hospitality, said in a recent interview that he had no interest in reopening his fine-dining restaurants if capacity was so reduced that it wouldn’t be profitable and the risk of contracting the virus so high that temperature-taking and face masks had to be built into service.

“What we’re dealing with, all of us is fear,” he told me last week. “I’ve always believed hospitality is the antidote to fear. What we are usually really, really good at is to welcome people and make people feel good around a table. But that tool has been taken from our hands.”

Some say visible signs of sanitation, including masks, will simply become the new mark of hospitality, layered into operations in the way health codes, licensing requirements, or advances in technology like online reservations have been.

“Now, hospitality means you are going to have to demonstrate this stuff,” said Alex Susskind, a professor at Cornell University and director of its food and beverage institute.

All of which can be baffling for restaurant owners as they try to balance safety with customer expectations.

Craig Richards is the chef at Lyla Lila, a Southern European restaurant that became an instant hit when it opened in Atlanta in December. He has been surveying customers on Facebook and trading notes with other chefs who, like him, hope to reopen in the coming weeks.

“I’ve said from the beginning that we wanted our restaurant to be a respite from daily life, but what does that look like now?” he said. “I want them to forget about everything that’s happening, and not be inundated with all of these reminders.”

The most obvious reminder, at least for now, is the mask. Restaurant owners are pondering whether they should be surgical-style paper coverings, which are relatively plentiful, inexpensive, and can be changed with each new group of diners, or a clear plastic shield worn like a necklace. Some are considering adding the restaurant’s logo, or looking for more stylized options, like the soft organic cotton masks being manufactured by the designer Natalie Chanin in Alabama.

Every little touch of hospitality is an opportunity to turn the grim march back into business into an opportunity to be creative, said Ashley Christensen, who is selling dinner kits and alcoholic beverages to go as she ponders how and when to reopen her popular restaurants in Raleigh, N.C.

“When you make the mental decision that there is still room to be creative in this mode,” she said, “it feels more exciting and joyful and not just about loss.”