You wear a face mask when you enter a restaurant, knowing you’ll encounter people in close proximity. You take it off to eat, and then put it back on when you exit the restaurant.
But think about who you encounter between arriving and leaving ― your server, who’s potentially endangering their own health just to bring you food. Should you also mask up when your server approaches to take your order or clear up plates?
It may not be required by restaurants, but to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, it’s the appropriate ― not to mention polite ― thing to do, experts say.
“You should absolutely put your face covering on when the waitstaff come to your table. This is both the safest option and the most considerate option,” said Kristen Gibson, an associate professor of food safety and microbiology at the University of Arkansas.
Day in and day out, servers are placing their personal health at risk when they go to work at restaurants. Yes, they’re wearing face coverings themselves, which puts you at ease. But as a patron, “You should be contributing to the reduction of that risk, not adding to it,” Gibson said.
It makes sense, given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. We’re instructed to wear a mask and stay six feet apart. When waiters come to your table, they’re closer than six feet. Masks for both parties reduce the risk for everyone involved.
“We know that masks are not 100% effective at stopping the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (the medical designation for COVID-19) even when worn properly, so if you are not wearing a mask and the person you are in close proximity to is, both people are still at an increased risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 even if asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic,” Gibson said.
A server who catches COVID-19 from a customer could expose many others to the virus. As one public health department spokesperson in Philadelphia told Eater last summer, a server interacting with customers with the virus could unknowingly pass it onto managers, other waiters, cooks, dishwashers and other patrons. (In September, a month-long investigation by the CDC found that study participants who tested positive for COVID-19 were roughly twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant within two weeks of the onset of illness than those who tested negative for the virus.)
Restaurants are doing everything in their power to stay open, with socially distanced tables (inside or outdoors) and new safety guidelines. If patrons want their favorite spots to remain open and survive the pandemic, masking up as they interact with waiters is the least they can do, Gibson said.
There is one argument against putting your mask on every time the server approaches the table, and that’s the fact that over-handling the covering increases the risk of transmitting COVID-19 from your hands to your mouth or nose. But simple guidelines can be followed to prevent that ― just be sure your hands are always sanitized and place your mask in a safe place, like your purse or a small mesh laundry bag, not on the table.
“When you are eating at a restaurant, the last place you want to put the mask after you remove it is on the table,” internal medicine physician Vivek Cherian. told HuffPost in September.
“COVID is transmitted via respiratory droplets, which can occur even when people are talking,” he said. “So just having a simple conversation with your friend and family can cause droplets to land on and contaminate your mask.”
Servers weigh in
In many restaurants, entirely maskless meals are the norm, even when servers approach. Mia Mainville, a server in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said in her experience people put them on “once in a blue moon.”
“Every so often, I’ll get a table with people from out of town who wear their masks when I’m at their table,” she told HuffPost. “I always make it a point to thank them for being considerate, because it truly does mean a lot.”
Darron Cardosa, a server in New York City and blogger at The Bitchy Waiter, said that patrons at his restaurant mask up when he approaches about 10% of the time.
“When they don’t do it and I need to reach in front of them to clear a dirty plate, I find myself holding my breath to keep from breathing in anything they may be breathing out,” he said.
Cardosa said he realizes it can be an inconvenience to mask up mid-dining, which is why he and his coworkers try to limit the times they get close enough to make it necessary. He also said he feels appreciated when he sees customers rush to grab their masks as he walks up.
“It makes me feel like we are in this together instead of just me potentially risking my health so they can eat a cheeseburger,” he said.
Ten months into the pandemic, Elena Goss, a writer and server in Annapolis, Maryland, said she still feels a little uneasy about approaching mask-less patrons. That’s especially so if they’ve been drinking and are talking in loud voices, since that’s likely to spread germs in a larger radius than would otherwise be the case.
“The max we can seat at my restaurant is six at a table,” she said. “I feel genuinely unsafe when I’m only a foot away from a group of people and none of them have their masks on and all of them are projecting directly toward me.”
As a new variant of the coronavirus surfaced in Maryland earlier this month, Goss has started to take extra precautions.
“Lately I’ve been wearing large, tightly fitted non-prescription eyeglasses just to feel more protected,” the server said.
When she sees a diner put on their mask, though, it “shows me that you’re thinking of me as an individual who needs to feel safe, just as I know that you need to be safe and so I wear my mask for you.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.