A server wears a mask as she takes orders in a restaurant.
"Gaslamp waitress with mask" by San Diego Shooter is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Jon Schott is just about at his breaking point. He’s been working six days a week at three bars and restaurants in Alexandria ever since they were permitted to reopen. While he can stomach the scramble that comes with being short-staffed at The People’s Drug, King’s Ransom, and The Handover, the bartender and part-owner is frustrated that customer behavior seems to be worsening. “People coming into the restaurants now, even for to-go food, are a whole different animal,” he says. “They’re over the protocols.”

The government-mandated mask policy continues to be the top safety precaution customers and businesses clash over. The conflict can feel dehumanizing at times, according to Schott. “It feels like they don’t see us people or as equals,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told someone clearly that they have to wear a mask to go to the restroom and they’ll say ‘There’s nobody in the restaurant.’ I’m literally standing right here.” 

But perhaps the most frustrating encounter Schott had was at The People’s Drug on a Saturday night a few weeks ago, when a table allegedly fought back against the restaurant’s policy that groups can only dine for an hour and a half before they have to give up their table for the next patrons. “If you like the restaurant, these are the things we need to do to survive so you can come back and do this again sometime,” he explains. “The extra 30 minutes of sitting and looking at your phones is not helpful.” 

Tension built up over the whole time period the group was at the table, according to Schott, who describes their behavior as rude and condescending. He had to tell them they couldn’t order off-menu cocktails or smoke on the patio. “They’d put their palm up when they talked to us,” he says. But when restaurant staff told them it was last call just before their hour and a half was up, conditions escalated. As Schott tells it, the group thought the clock should have reset when new people joined their party mid meal.

“I asked them to leave one more time,” Schott says. “One guy comes in and tells us, ‘This is bad business, you’re doing this wrong.'” He wasn’t wearing a mask during this confrontation, according to Schott, who also says one person in the party claimed to work for the Centers for Disease Control. “She said she would get the restaurant shut down. At this point, they’re cursing and throwing names around.” 

They finally left and a fresh set of diners took over the table. “When people come in I’m on guard,” Schott says. “I notice I’m sore when I’m off the clock. I’m sore because I’m tense the whole time I’m at work.” 

Schott handled the situation to the best of his ability, but not every restaurant worker, manager, or owner has the skill set to deescalate scenarios that could prove to be dangerous. Locally based sister organizations Safe Bars and Defend Yourself teamed up to launch a series of Zoom workshops to equip the hospitality industry to establish a rapport with someone who is agitated to bring the temperature down before the problem goes from annoying to dangerous to potentially deadly.

Lauren Taylor serves as the director of both organizations. Defend Yourself “works to empower people—especially women and others targeted for abuse and assault—to end violence and create a world where they can be fully themselves,” while Safe Bars trains bar staff to intervene and prevent sexual harassment and assault.

“This is a crisis and this is what we know,” Taylor says, on starting the deescalation workshops. Her goal is to “offer people skills that will help them stay emotionally, mentally, and physically safe at work during the pandemic.” The workshops are co-sponsored by a new organization called Focus on Health. Local bartender Lauren Paylor co-founded it to help hospitality industry professionals stay in the field longer by encouraging them to take care of their wellbeing. 

City Paper sat in on the first of its kind virtual workshop this week. There are two more scheduled for bar and restaurant workers and a third targeted more broadly for essential workers like grocery store employees. Registration is open and Taylor explains that bar and restaurant owners can also book private training sessions for their staff. 

Farah Fosse and Nicole Del Casale served as the facilitators of the first workshop. They kicked things off by reminding participants, who signed on from across the country and Canada, why essential and restaurant workers are uniquely at risk when confrontations arise. 

“Essential workers are more likely to live below the poverty line or hover just above it,” Del Casale told the group. She’s worked in the hospitality industry for 15 years. “It’s important to think of who is getting targeted by bad behavior. Most are women, people of color, and are more likely to be immigrants than the general population.” Fosse adds, “Maybe [customers] are mad about a policy, but the way they attack someone becomes imbued with hate-based speech.” 

Intervening early is critical. “Usually nobody jumps up and punches someone,” Fosse says. “You’ll see them yelling or pounding on the table before they stand up. Notice and interrupt behavior earlier.” She encourages restaurants and bars to have signs clearly spelling out the rules and setting expectations with customers when servers first approach a table. 

The meat of the workshop focused on five steps to successfully deescalating situations. The first asks you to “anchor” yourself. Doing some deep breathing before approaching a problem customer can coax the brain out of fight or flight mode, according to Fosse. “If you’re like, ‘Great, someone just walked in with a mask on their chin,’ take a breath and center yourself,” she says. Then think about your goal and what you need to do and say to achieve it. 

Next, you should think about safety. Assess how “escalated” someone is compared to the rest of the group they’re with and find a place to talk to the combative person where you aren’t pinning yourself between them and a wall. Look around for objects that could potentially be used as weapons like pint glasses. Notice who else is around and consider making eye contact with a coworker so they can keep an eye on you.

Next, “show your cool” or demonstrate how calm you are. “Show them that you’re in the mode to listen,” Fosse encourages. “Put on your problem-solving face and stand diagonally across from them so it doesn’t look like you’re squaring up for a fight.” She also recommends using an assertive tone and clasping your hands in front of your body or otherwise making your hands visible. 

Then it’s time to ask, listen, and empathize. Fosse says to agree with whatever you can. “I know it’s such a pain, but I will get fired if I let you in, so do me a solid and put on that mask,” she coaches. Knowing the current guidelines and regulations related to COVID-19 can help you enforce them. Trying to create a bond by commiserating can also help, as can apologizing and empathizing with phrases like “I hear that” or “I see that you’re upset and I’d like to help.”

Finally, restaurant employees should work toward a resolution—whether that’s asking patrons to leave or referring them to someone up the chain of command to a manager, owner, or security staff. Sometimes you can reason with another person in the party who has experience calming their friend or loved one down. 

The facilitators caution against involving the police. “They can often escalate things, and depending on someone’s race, they could be differently impacted by the police,” Fosse says. “People of color who are intervening to stop a violent situation could be targeted as an offender.” 

Another possibility, according to the facilitators, is offering the angry patron or patrons something special. Bars and restaurants don’t have deep pockets right now to comp meals or rounds of cocktails, but a manager could hand over his or her business card with a promise for a guaranteed reservation. (This approach isn’t perfect because it reinforces that bad behavior leads to freebies or special access.)

Asked if Schott thinks such a workshop would be beneficial, he has a mixed response. “As restaurant people, we love tools like that,” he says. “So my straight-up answer is yes. But, at the same time when do we have time to do that? We’re already taking these extra precautions. Now we have to learn how to deal with guests who don’t like the extra precautions? The good relationship between hosts and guests, something I strive for, is deteriorating. We’re more like servants. It sucks.”

Photo: “Gaslamp waitress with mask” by San Diego Shooter is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0