Amber Williams, a bartender and server at an East Nashville restaurant, dreaded the announcement that Nashville would lift its indoor mask mandate.
Williams said this past year, she experienced an uptick in aggressive behavior from patrons refusing to wear masks. Now, without a city-wide mandate as of Friday morning, Williams worries that customers will be even less understanding of her restaurant’s decision to continue requiring them.
“I absolutely plan to see an increase in disgruntled customers,” Williams said. “And it’s not because of the service. It’s because they don’t want to wear a mask.”
The Metro Public Health Department decided to loosen the city’s COVID restrictions last week after the Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced that fully vaccinated people are no longer required to wear masks or socially distance indoors. (The C.D.C. and Nashville officials still recommend that those who are unvaccinated continue to wear masks in crowds and indoors.)
While many people were thrilled to get rid of their masks ahead of the summer heat, some in the restaurant industry remain apprehensive.
Robert Fletcher, a server and host at a Germantown restaurant, said the night of the city’s announcement, he was confronted three times by uncooperative patrons. “The C.D.C. says we don’t have to so I shouldn’t have to,” he recalled one customer saying.
While most patrons respect his restaurant’s policy, the few incidents of pushback can be disheartening. “I’m just trying to make a living, and they don’t even pretend to care,” Fletcher said.
Meanwhile, business owners find themselves at a crossroads now that city officials have left it up to them to decide whether to keep a mask mandate. Establishments like Yeast Nashville, a kolaches bakery, have been conflicted about when to loosen their own health measures.
“We don’t know what to do,” said Sara Way, the owner of Yeast Nashville. “I don’t want to make anybody so mad that they don’t want to come back to the shop or they start bad-talking us, but I also want to make sure everyone is feeling safe.”
When it comes to masks, Way said it’s essentially impossible to accommodate everyone’s preferences. “You don’t want to offend anyone’s opinion on any of this,” she added.
For now, Way said her restaurant will continue to enforce face coverings and social distancing until she and her staff feel more comfortable.
Though restaurants have been getting busier now that restrictions are lifted, a staff shortage has been on the rise. Williams said the city’s decision to drop its mask mandate will only further discourage those in the workforce.
“I don’t blame people for not wanting to come back to this industry because it has been hard,” Williams said. “People have been very mean.”