Perspectives: Anti-Mask Messages are Bad for Business

As normal activities slowly resume this year, a reminder: Maintaining COVID-era courtesy and safety is a good idea, personally and professionally.
Do Not Enter Jun20


There’s a restaurant not too far from my home with a complicated sign on its front door.

This place — naming it would open an unnecessary can of irritation, but it’s a national chain — is evidently the purview of an owner who takes a skeptical view of COVID-19 safety precautions. The (dramatically) shortened version of the message: You have to wear a mask, but we don’t like mask rules, so we’re not actually going to do anything about it either way.

The sign, in a sentence that appears in bold italics and is underlined, proclaims, “We are not the mask police!” A further explanation claims that many people have medical conditions that prevent them from wearing masks (this is mostly untrue, by the way), and if you come in without a mask, they will assume you are thus afflicted.

The sign goes on — no, it’s not done yet, and I’m omitting a lot of information — to claim that the restaurant employees may or may not have medical conditions that prevent them from wearing masks, and they are furthermore unable to ask their employees about this since doing so would be a HIPAA violation. Now, this part is definitely untrue, as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act is a fairly narrow set of rules relating to medical records and not a magical cone of secrecy.

That’s not the point, though.

The point is: This business hates masks, and is going to construct whatever ridiculous argument it needs to make sure you, the customer, knows that you are entering a mask-hating establishment.

Now, I have never owned a fast-casual restaurant … yet. (Who knows what the economy is going to do from here.) But you don’t have to be a franchisee to know that this sign is bad business. Even setting aside the much greater public-health concerns, the strategy doesn’t make sense.

If a person who is irritated by wearing a mask — you know the type — heads to this restaurant and sees that sign, they may think, “Good,” and proceed inside to buy their dinner. But that person was already on the way in; this isn’t an advertisement, it’s a notice on the front door. The restaurant didn’t gain a customer with their posted tirade, they merely maintained a certain type of customer.

On the other hand, if a person who understands the necessity and efficacy of mask-wearing —  a normal, sensible person — heads to this restaurant and sees that sign, they may be put off enough to take their business elsewhere. They may decide that the sign is tantamount to a public admission that the owners of this restaurant are disinterested in the health and safety of their customers and employees and, quite understandably, decide that’s not the kind of place they’d trust to prepare their food. In this case, the sign cost the restaurant business.

In other words, this is a strategy that can gain the restaurant nothing but can cost the restaurant considerably.

Again: I’m no MBA, but that’s bad business.

As 2021 rolls on and we continue to get back to the activities we left in 2019, there’s going to be some questions about which pandemic-era precautions and courtesies to maintain and which to drop. Inevitably, there will be some that are no longer worth bothering with. If you pass me on the street, for example, you don’t need to turn your head in the opposite direction. I know I’m not going to get sick from two seconds of general proximity to anyone — and that is only going to get more and more obvious as vaccination levels rise.

But other behaviors — mask-wearing in public places, maintaining physical distance, avoiding personal contact — should stick around for a while. For one thing, COVID is not yet defeated, and there will be no way to know if the person you’re sharing air with is vaccinated — or, for that matter, if they’re immunocompromised and are relying on you to keep them safe. More importantly, though, we’ve all been trained against close contact and the free exchange of air. It’s going to be nerve-wracking and weird as we adjust back.

Continuing to be cautious and courteous costs you little and gains you the trust and comfort of those around you. It is no great imposition to give people 6 feet of space in the grocery aisle, or don a mask for a few minutes as you wait in line at the post office; if you don’t keep up with these things, though, you’re going to irritate some people around you. 

If you’re running a business, this is even more essential. Whatever you think about restrictions and guidelines, you benefit not at all by shirking them, and you make your customers feel at ease by following them. Whether it’s a pandemic or not, I’m generally happier in an establishment that looks like it’s trying to keep me healthy and comfortable. And if a place gives the impression that it doesn’t care about protecting me — or literally posts a sign on the front door saying so — I’m going to take my business elsewhere.

I’m not going to that restaurant again. Aside from my feelings on this particular issue, I’m inclined to ask a follow-up question: If you think this public-health crisis is not worth respecting, what other safety regulations have you decided aren’t worth following? Is there stuff growing up through the kitchen floor because you’ve decided you’re not the fungus police, either?

Again: I’m not a business guy. But putting up a sign that makes me wonder whether your restaurant is generally dirty or merely situationally dirty is probably a bad move.

Categories: Collier’s Weekly