With Covid case numbers and hospitalisations on the rise, is it time for hospitality venues and diners to up their mask game?
Bestie Cafe is nestled in the back corner of St Kevins Arcade on Auckland’s Karangahape Road. It’s bustling most times of the day, with customers dashing in and out for coffees and breakfast baps, and tables ordering plates of aged cheddar cheese toasties or pancake stacks before they sell out for the day.
Last week, Bestie co-owner Emma Lyell posted a request on the cafe’s Instagram page: “Hii! With covid numbers on the rise we would love it if all customers can wear a mask when not eating/drinking! Cheers!” The post was accompanied by a picture of a cheerful-looking anthropomorphic slice of toast and the words “please wear a mask”.
At the red setting, both staff and customers were required to wear face masks in hospitality venues while not at their table. At our current setting, orange, public-facing workers at indoor hospitality venues must wear medical grade face masks. Customers at restaurants, cafes and bars, however, aren’t required to wear a mask. But while it’s not mandatory for customers, the government’s Covid-19 website says they are “encouraged to wear a face mask in public indoor settings wherever it is practical”.
Notwithstanding these rules for hospitality staff and official advice for customers, and despite surging case and hospitalisation numbers, in recent months there’s been a clear drop in mask use among both punters and workers in these venues. You’d be forgiven for thinking we’d time-travelled back to 2019 in some establishments I’ve visited recently.
Lyell says all her staff wear masks while working, and the request for customers to do the same when they’re not eating or drinking “feels like a real simple way that we can help lessen Covid numbers”, she says. “We’re often like scooting by really close with a coffee and you can often get a queue of people, so it just feels like surely it can’t hurt.”
University of Auckland aerosol chemist Joel Rindelaub agrees. “I feel that people should be wearing masks whenever they’re in these high-risk environments, whenever they can,” he says. “I mean, it’s obviously not going to be possible the entire time. But the more you wear it, the better you’re doing for yourself, because you’re lowering the risk.”
But does it make a difference if you’re going to sit down and take your mask off anyway?
“Absolutely,” says Rindelaub. “You never know, when you’re going to be exposed at a restaurant, for instance, it could be when someone was passing by you. Or maybe when you went to the loo, or when you’re just at the end, face to face with someone having a conversation and paying – it could be at any point. So it’s important to reduce your risk as much as you can.”
Based on the sheer number of people hospitality staff come into contact with, Rindelaub says it’s important workers wear good quality masks. “Especially considering that they’re already dealing with staffing issues,” he says.
The fragile nature of staffing at the moment is another reason Lyell decided to ask customers to put their masks on. She’s currently covering her manager who is isolating. And while Bestie hasn’t got to the point of having to shut its doors, as many other Covid-stricken eateries have, “this resurgence feels like we’re one or two staff away from having to think about a day closed here or limiting the menu”, she says.
While Lyell’s staff hadn’t raised any concerns around people not wearing masks to her directly, she thinks encouraging mask use creates a more equal relationship between workers and customers. “Everyone at work appreciates it when customers care about them as well – it’s not just a one-way street.”
She’s noticed the drop-off in mask wearing in other hospitality venues and says “it can be really disheartening when you’re doing all this and you’re working under really hot conditions with masks. And then you go in somewhere and no one’s doing anything.”
Summer was especially difficult for Bestie in terms of working with masks – the big St Kevin’s Arcade windows turn the space into what Lyell describes as “a greenhouse”. So, “if we can do it, anyone can do it”.
Yesterday, Covid-19 response minister Ayesha Verrall reiterated that New Zealand will remain in the orange setting of the traffic light system. Rather than tightening the settings, free masks will be rolled out via rapid antigen test collection points nationwide. Most people will be given medical masks, but those deemed most vulnerable will be provided with P2/N95 masks.
During her press conference, Verrall underscored the importance of masks. “Wearing masks can reduce new cases of the virus by as much as 53%. We are asking New Zealanders to keep up good mask wearing, especially over the remaining winter months where the virus is more likely to pass in indoor settings,” she said.
Rindelaub would like to see clearer official communication around masks in hospitality spaces. “I think that we need to have some more emphasis on the messaging when it comes to wearing high-quality N95 type masks in these high-risk indoor environments,” he says.
There won’t be any requirement for customers to wear masks at Bestie, says Lyell. Instead, it will remain a polite and friendly request. “It feels like a small thing we can do that is pretty widely known, that can really help to stop transmission,” she says. “So it just feels like a no-brainer.”