Central Ohio bars: Unruly customers add to servers' challenges

Patrick Cooley
The Columbus Dispatch
A "mask on" sign hangs inside Short North Pint House on North High Street in Columbus on Nov. 18.

Nine months after the COVID-19 coronavirus is known to have infected the first Ohioans, bar and restaurant workers say they continue to be confronted by customers who refuse to abide by mask mandates and social-distancing requirements.

Those customers cost food-service workers time and often money when they leave smaller tips, workers say.

Although difficult patrons are dwindling in number, employees of central Ohio pubs, taverns and diners say they still see them, forcing workers to find new ways to address those who don’t take the pandemic as seriously as others.

Service workers experience hostility over pandemic protocol

study earlier in December of service-industry workers in several East Coast states and Illinois by One Fair Wage found 78% experienced hostility from customers over COVID-19 protocols. Although no equivalent study of central Ohio workers has been published, several restaurateurs, servers and bartenders told The Columbus Dispatch in recent weeks that they receive pushback when asking customers to wear masks or stay at least 6 feet away from others.

Although that type of behavior became less frequent as the pandemic wore on, it still occurs, bar and restaurant workers said.

“We had quite a few issues with that early on, but we don't have nearly as much of that now,” said Corey Schlosser, general manager of Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, which has a taproom in downtown Columbus. 

He echoed the sentiments of numerous restaurant and bar workers.

“People that have been going to bars have gotten used to it (masks and social distancing),” said Craig Kempton, who owns the Bier Stube in the Short North. “By now, it should just be something that you do.”

Even so, sometimes customers simply forget and need a gentle reminder, he said.

Some customers take issue with curfew, mask use and distancing measures

Mask use and maintaining a 6-foot distance from other guests aren’t the only rules customers occasionally take issue with, bar and restaurant workers said.

In July, Ohio regulators instituted a ban on alcohol sales after 10 p.m., and the state also had issued a 10 p.m. curfew late last year.

“Guests will make a reservation later, knowing that the curfew is going on, and say, ‘I'm going to stay past 10 p.m.,’” Schlosser said.

Workers who interact directly with customers are the ones who suffer most from inconsiderate guests, he said.

“When guests feel they get a negative experience, they tip less,” Schlosser said.

This comes at a time when bartenders and servers already are struggling, as Ohioans largely are staying away from restaurants for fear of coronavirus infection.

About 80% of food-service workers who participated in the One Fair Wage study said they have experienced a significant decline in their tips.

So how do bartenders and servers handle customers who won't abide by COVID-19 rules?

Justin Ryan, a bartender at Land Grant Brewing Co.’s Franklinton taproom, said he has learned deescalation tactics. While most Land Grant patrons are understanding, Ryan said, the servers experience at least one person every week who argues over coronavirus protocols.

Mask wearing and social distancing have turned political over the course of the pandemic, but Ryan divorces the issue from politics as much as possible.

“It’s about explaining why we’re doing it,” he said. “It’s because of the CDC guidelines and Gov. (Mike) DeWine’s (announcement of Ohio Health Department) orders.”

Failing that, Ryan tries to make it an issue of survival, emphasizing the virus still is spreading and the taproom stands to lose its liquor license if it violates coronavirus restrictions too many times.

“It’s about protecting everyone,” he said. “We’re trying to make it not about the fact that 'I’m making you do this;' it’s more or less about trying to stay open.”

Kempton tries to be polite but firm with customers who intentionally eschew masks or social distancing.

“I'll be nice the first time, but I have a three-strikes policy,” he said.

If customers don’t comply with the first two requests, Kempton said, he asks them to leave.

Schlosser said Wolf’s Ridge employees are empowered to ask customers to leave if they don’t feel comfortable.

“If the guest is not following the guidelines, we're OK with asking that guest to leave,” he said. 

Still, service workers and restaurateurs said most customers have been receptive to COVID-19 mandates.

“We’re 10 months in, and most people understand what is being asked of them,” said Brandon Ballinger, the regional manager for La Tavola in Grandview Heights and Lupo on Arlington in Upper Arlington. 

“It’s not really like we are the ones who want to be policing the customers."