If you’ve eaten at a restaurant during the pandemic, whether indoors or out, you’ve probably seen this happen: A server approaches a table of diners to check on their meals or deliver the check. The server is masked, because local laws require her to be. The diners aren’t, because as long as they’re seated at their table and eating, they’re allowed to keep their masks off.
This imbalance has always been a flaw of COVID-era restaurant reopening schemes, one of the many ways the pandemic has magnified existing class- and race-based inequities for workers in service industries. But while those one-sided mask mandates were hard to avoid in places that allowed restaurants to reopen in 2020 and early 2021—diners have to remove their masks to eat and drink, while servers do not—they have become far less defensible as vaccination rates have risen and COVID case numbers have dropped. It’s been over a month since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its guidance that vaccinated people could forgo masks in most indoor and outdoor spaces. Why are so many vaccinated service industry workers still forced to wear them?
In the weeks since that CDC recommendation came down, many states and cities have rolled back their legal mask mandates. Private businesses in those jurisdictions still have the power to require mask use, and while some do, others have made masks optional. Many of those businesses have made requests for unvaccinated patrons to remain masked, but because of the substantial overlap between anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers, it’s hard to imagine they’re heeded.
At CVS, Whole Foods, and Target, most fully vaccinated customers and employees can go without masks. But some executives and small-business owners are taking another route: a two-tier system that requires stringent COVID precautions for employees and lax ones for customers. People who work at the TJX family of stores, which includes the lower-price retailers HomeGoods, Marshalls, and TJ Maxx, must wear masks for the entirety of their shifts, vaccinated or not. And the patrons they’ll assist? “We ask non-vaccinated customers to please continue to wear face coverings while in store,” the retailers’ websites say.
Several other major companies have issued similar masking guidelines in recent weeks. Wegmans announced on May 19 that fully vaccinated customers were no longer required to wear masks in the store, while fully vaccinated employees must continue to wear them until July 4. Disney World has totally different policies for its visitors (who can go maskless) and workers (who can only remove their masks if they work outside in a distanced location). All Gap employees must remain masked up, too, even as the company is simply “recommending” that unvaccinated shoppers continue to cover their faces.
These codified double standards are not just indefensible from an equity standpoint. They are wholly unsupported by public health guidelines. Really, the exact opposite of the two-tier policies these companies have adopted would be a lot more consistent with current public health recommendations. The CDC says it’s OK for vaccinated people to be indoors together. It would be much easier for employers to verify a worker’s vaccination status than a customer’s—and most of the companies I’ve mentioned offer employees paid time off for vaccination and potential side effects—so it would make more sense to allow verified vaccinated retail workers to go unmasked while requiring all customers to mask up.
The same applies to food service. Chipotle allows fully vaccinated customers, but not employees, to go maskless, and Starbucks workers must “wear multi-ply facial coverings (or double mask)” while patrons do not. True, it may take a while before it arouses no concern to see an unmasked stranger breathing on our food. But remember that epidemiologists and food-safety authorities have not identified food as a vector for coronavirus transmission. And even if you could catch the virus from eating a burrito bowl covered in spike proteins, a vaccinated worker in a community with low infection rates is highly unlikely to be spewing them. The greater hypothetical risk at a fully unmasked Chipotle would be a worker’s droplets and aerosols floating over the burrito bar and into a customer’s face. But if an institution has already decided to accept the risk of the droplets and aerosols that unvaccinated customers produce, as Chipotle has, there is no reason to hold vaccinated employees to a different standard.
It’s not just corporations that are saddling employees with the burden of fully masked shifts while customers breathe freely. The disparate treatment also persists in independent businesses, where mask mandates for staff can seem particularly absurd. Last month, I dined outdoors at a small restaurant with a group of fully vaccinated friends. Every time our server approached, some of my friends rushed to refasten their masks. “Don’t worry about that,” our server said. “I’m vaccinated, so you’re fine without them.” She, on the other hand, was forced to wear hers, even while walking between the well-spaced tables on the wide-open patio. A colleague recently visited an auto mechanic whose outdoor crew was fully masked while they changed tires in the sweltering heat. “Indeed,” observed Jacob Bernstein in a May New York Times report on the current state of luxury living in the Hamptons, “when one spots a person wearing a mask outdoors, chances are high that the person is attending to the rich.”
It’s possible that some of these workers want to continue wearing masks for their own protection. Obviously, no one should be forced to remove a mask that makes them feel safe, even though an individual’s mask principally protects other people from the breath of the person wearing it. Workers who are immunocompromised or just exceedingly cautious might want to stay masked until case rates are lower and vaccination rates are higher wherever they live and work. (Immunocompromised workers should already be granted the types of accommodations that must be made for any employee with a disability.) While United Food and Commercial Workers, a union that represents 1.3 million grocery and retail employees, has registered concern about the rollback of store mask mandates, a statement from the union president focused on the risk of customers with unknown vaccination histories going unmasked and workers “being asked to be the vaccination police.” But instead of reinstating customer mask mandates in response to worker concerns, the companies who’ve eliminated them have simply made masks optional for all customers, using an honor system to free employees from enforcement duty. (The burden of policing anti-masker customers was so great that some Starbucks workers told Business Insider that they were glad to see customer mask mandates gone.)
What about the safety of immunocompromised customers, children, and others who aren’t yet eligible for vaccines? The burden of their protection should not be foisted solely upon workers, especially when stores are already creating uncontrolled risk by allowing customers to choose whether to wear masks at all.
Besides, the fact is fully vaccinated people are very unlikely to become infected with COVID-19. If they do, they are much less likely than unvaccinated people to transmit it to others. And if they still somehow contract the virus and have the ability infect others, it’s usually with a drastically reduced viral load. Forcing low-paid workers to wear masks in a place where unvaccinated, unmasked customers roam does more to falsely inflate a company’s image as COVID-conscious than it does to reduce the actual risk of in-store COVID transmission.
You might argue that retail and food service workers, by virtue of their public-facing duties, are at a greater risk of contracting the coronavirus, and then spreading it, than many of their customers, so they should be wearing masks for everyone’s sake. But there’s no fair or reasonable way to make a blanket assumption about the risk level of an entire class of people. You could also argue that any transmission-prevention measure is a good one: The more masks, the better, and managers have a lot more power over what their workers wear than they do their customers. But how much extra risk reduction would a mask on an already-vaccinated employee offer in a store filled with unmasked patrons? Not enough to justify the disparate treatment. Consider it this way: What better way to convince front-line workers to get vaccinated than with the promise of an end to workdays spent breathing their own recycled breath?