The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown orders and mask mandates have taken a serious toll on the American psyche. While much of the focus has been on the economic damages that have resulted from the coronavirus outbreak, it seems that it may have affected how Americans treat one another.
This trend can be seen in recent reports detailing with the dynamic between foodservice employees and customers as the nation struggles to recover from the pandemic. Due to shortages in workers, caused in large part by the expansion of enhanced federal unemployment benefits, restaurants, as well as other types of small businesses have had a tough time keeping their businesses afloat despite being constantly short-staffed.
The difficulties of operating a business with severe staffing shortages have caused a level of friction between employees and the customers who do not seem to understand the challenges facing a workforce that is being stretched thin. CNN reported that in several cases, restaurant staff members have faced increasingly unruly and aggressive customers more so than they had before the pandemic. In at least some of these cases, these workers quit their jobs because of the level of vitriol directed at them.
One of the workers CNN interviewed was Joshuah Morton, a 36-year-old server in Phoenix, AZ who went back to work because “sitting at home all the time was getting depressing.” He originally began staying home because he is a diabetic and his four-year-old son has an immune deficiency. He noted that many employees were “just walking out in the middle of shifts” due to their treatment. He told CNN that patrons are “already angry, already wanting to complain about things,” when they arrive at their tables.
In Richmond, VA, Kat Combs, who works at an Asian fusion restaurant, told CNN that while most of her customers are well-behaved, she noticed that after reopening, several were not so nice. She said:
One of our first nights of reopening, some guy came to the bar and yelled at our manager. [He said] ‘you need to hire more staff,’ as if she could solve that problem right then, right there.
Combs explained that many customers become irate when they have to wait for a table despite tables being unoccupied. They do not grasp the reality that the restaurant is short-staffed so it does not have enough manpower to serve them immediately.
SFGate also published a report in which the author spoke with food service workers who told similar stories. Vi Nguyen, owner of Vanessa’s Bistro in Berkeley, recalled an incident in which a customer stood in the kitchen doorway screaming at her because a server made a mistake. She said:
This was the beginning of the reopening, and we had a line of takeout orders. Her husband stood at the doorway and was like, ‘She’s hungry! She needs her food right now!’
Nguyen explained that this type of situation has become more normal since California reopened on June 15. She has even had to ban some of her regular customers for their behavior.
“One gentleman yelled at my server, ‘I don’t understand why you guys don’t have more tables out here’ … because they didn’t want to wait for the table. They were just super rude,” she recounted. “Where exactly do you want me to put all of these extra tables? In the road, where the cars drive?”
Mina Makram, founder of Misfits Bakehouse in Palo Alto said that she has been “seeing a huge rise in people just forgetting to be human.”
Makram told the story of one customer who ordered a bread pickup the Friday before Memorial Day, never showed up, and then made a scene when she arrived the following Wednesday to find her order was no longer available. When he wouldn’t give her the refund she demanded, she left a one-star Yelp review.
“Then she filed a fraudulent claim with her bank,” said Makram. “The bank withdrew the amount from the order from us but also fined us $15. … She stole from the bakery as far as I can see.”
These salty customers are reacting irrationally to a situation that is beyond the control of the restaurants they are frequenting. They are assuming that because the economy has been reopened, everything is as it was in the pre-pandemic days. While people have recently begun returning to work after states canceled federal unemployment benefits, small businesses still do not have pre-pandemic staffing levels.
Sergio Emilio Monleón of La Marcha Tapas Bar in Berkeley told SFGate that “people just expect everything to be perfect,” even though the restaurant is “dealing with a labor shortage” and having to train a brand new staff.
These are only a few of the stories that have been reported regarding grumpy patrons. This trend has shown up in the retail and airline industries as well.
It might seem frivolous to highlight the trend of people becoming nastier to workers due to the impact of the coronavirus. But it is worth considering whether this issue might transcend the service industry. The pandemic brought about fiery debates and created issues that seem to have further divided the nation.
Arguments over which COVID restrictions were necessary or appropriate abound. Recently, two groups of pro and anti-mask protesters engaged in physical violence in front of a breast cancer clinic that required patients to wear masks.
New video: Anti-mask protesters and counter-protesters including SoCal Antifa fought Thursday outside a breast cancer clinic in Los Angeles over their requirement that patients wear masks.
— Ford Fischer (@FordFischer) July 24, 2021
There are many other instances of violence breaking out over governments or businesses requiring masks. It’s become an alarming trend that doesn’t appear to be dying down anytime soon.
It may still be awhile before America returns to business as usual. Indeed, some might be tempted to believe we may never get there. Still, it is worth considering whether the way Americans treat each other might go back to normal when economies are fully open and businesses are fully staffed. Will the increased levels of douchebaggish behavior continue or subside?