The Customer Is Always Right. Except When They Won't Wear A Mask

Jul 14, 2020
Originally published on July 14, 2020 9:52 am

They fume and rage and demand their rights. Sometimes they even get violent.

In the age of COVID-19, most people practice social distancing guidelines when they go into stores and restaurants, putting on masks and standing 6 feet behind other customers.

Still, there are the nightmare customers — those who refuse to comply.

"I've had a lot of conflict. I've had a lot of pushback from people," says Brenda Leek, owner of Curbside Eatery in La Mesa, Calif.

One woman entered Leek's restaurant without a mask, pulling her T-shirt over her face. Leek told her to mask up or leave.

"So then she's like, 'This is ridiculous! You're discriminating against me!' Told me I would be hearing from her attorney. And I said, 'That's fine,' " Leek says.

Encounters like that are anything but unusual. The Internet is filled with videotaped confrontations involving customers who flout social distancing rules. Sometimes they insist on entering without face coverings. Other times one customer stands too close to another and a fight breaks out.

The conflicts can get especially nasty when alcohol is involved, says Kelly DuFord Williams, founder and managing partner of Slate Law Group.

"I've had clients who have had to call the police multiple times in order to have a customer escorted off the premises or at times arrested," Williams says.

The conflicts represent a legal minefield for small businesses, she adds. While social distancing guidelines are imposed by state and local governments, it's often left up to restaurants and stores to enforce them, and if they don't they can face lawsuits.

For example, if stores are less than diligent about enforcing the rules and a fight breaks out between customers, business owners can be sued, she notes. They can also face lawsuits for creating an unsafe working environment if an employee comes down with COVID-19, she says.

It's often employees who are on the front lines in altercations with difficult customers.

Since COVID-19 came along, Anthony Hernandez, who works as a barista at a coffee shop in suburban Chicago, has had to deal with more than his share of unruly coffee drinkers.

"Sometimes they'll say, 'You're being very disrespectful. You're telling me I have to wear my mask, that I have to do this and this.' And they'll escalate to that point and you're just standing there with the baristas, going, 'What do I do? What do I do?' " Hernandez says.

He tries hard to speak politely and calmly to customers, but sometimes the conflicts get downright ugly. He and the other Latinx workers frequently face racial and ethnic slurs from angry patrons, he says.

When that happens too often, he absents himself temporarily by telling co-workers he needs to take a "smoke break."

"Which is basically code for saying, 'I need to get out of the store for a little bit so I can go relax and cool myself down before I explode.' You know, because it gets really stressful at those moments," Hernandez says.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

In the world of small business, the customer is supposed always to be right. So what do owners do about customers who won't wear masks, even when it's the law? Here's NPR's Jim Zarroli.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Brenda Leek began running a restaurant last year in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa. It's called Curbside Eatery, and most days she loves it.

BRENDA LEEK: When it's rolling along, it's wonderful. I couldn't be happier. We have a fantastic clientele. We have a beautiful community.

ZARROLI: But this year hasn't been so fantastic. Because of COVID-19, the state says customers can only go into restaurants if they're wearing masks. Leek recently had to kick out a woman who wouldn't put one on.

LEEK: She had her shirt over her face. And I wouldn't let her in, and so then she said, this is ridiculous; you're discriminating against me and told me that I would be hearing from her attorney. And I said, that's fine.

ZARROLI: The attorney never called. Still, Leek is frustrated. She feels like she's caught in the middle. States such as California have imposed strict social distancing guidelines on retail stores and restaurants, and it's often up to the businesses themselves to enforce them. The Internet is filled with scenes of angry confrontations between customers and store managers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Don't touch me. I'm filming.

ZARROLI: This is a shopper at a mall outside Pittsburgh who's refusing to wear a mask.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I have a doctor's note where I don't have to wear one. I'll show you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You cannot come in here.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'll show you. Don't touch me.

ZARROLI: Other times, one customer stands too close to another, and they get into a fight. And this kind of a thing is happening a lot, especially at places that serve alcohol, says San Diego attorney Kelly DuFord Williams.

KELLY DUFORD WILLIAMS: I've had clients who've had to call the police multiple times in order to have a customer escorted off the premises or, at times, arrested.

ZARROLI: Williams says this is a legal minefield for small businesses. If they don't enforce COVID-19 regulations, they not only face fines - if anything goes wrong, they can be sued by customers, employees, even the state.

DUFORD WILLIAMS: If two customers got into an argument or a fight, the restaurant could be named on the complaint if they failed to enforce the mask rule or failed to kick them out.

ZARROLI: Williams says if a business doesn't follow the rules and an employee gets sick, it can be sued for creating an unsafe work environment. It's often a store's employees who are on the front lines in altercations with customers. Anthony Hernandez works as a barista in suburban Chicago. Since COVID-19 came along, he's had to deal with a lot more unruly coffee drinkers.

ANTHONY HERNANDEZ: Sometimes they'll say, like, you're being very disrespectful. You know, you're telling me that I have to wear my mask; I have to do this and this. And they'll escalate to that point, and you're just standing there with the baristas going, what do I do? What do I do?

ZARROLI: Hernandez, whose family is from Mexico, says he and the other staff are sometimes subject to ethnic slurs from irate patrons who won't wear masks. When that happens, he'll tell co-workers he needs to take a smoke break.

HERNANDEZ: Which is basically code for saying, I need to get out of the store for a little bit so I can go and just relax and cool myself down before I explode, you know, just because it gets really stressful at those moments.

ZARROLI: Hernandez adds that most customers aren't like that; they follow the rules. But there are enough who refuse to do so, and it's workers like him who have to deal with the consequences.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNWED SAILOR'S "GLARING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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