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HUNTINGTON — Restaurant servers are used to dealing with an angry customer over the way his steak was cooked, but now they face a more ominous pushback from “anti-maskers” who are yelling, screaming and getting in their faces.

“We have definitely had some customers yell and scream at our hostesses and servers,” said Megan Hetzer, who owns Backyard Pizza and The Peddler on 3rd Avenue in Huntington with her husband, Drew Hetzer. “We remain calm and polite, but yelling and screaming at our staff is unacceptable. I don’t understand adults acting this way.”

Some restaurants across the Huntington area are reporting an uptick in encounters with upset anti-mask customers.

“There is no need to be rude,” says Chris Dixon, owner of Christopher’s Eats on U.S. 60 between Huntington and Barboursville.

According to Dixon, his staff has had to say those words too many times to adults upset about the state-mandated policy that requires face coverings and social distancing guidelines when going inside a business.

“Most people don’t mind, but we have gotten some negativity from others,” Dixon said. “We had a few people make some very rude comments to our staff, and that’s unacceptable here.”

Dixon says Christopher’s Eats’ staff is largely made up of college students and other young people working their first job.

“There is no need to be rude to employees that are simply trying to follow the rules and be safe,” he said. “We understand that nobody wants to wear a mask on a 90-degree day, but I will guarantee you that you wouldn’t want your child spoken to the way we’re hearing some adults speak to the young people on our staff because they disagree with policies and guidelines.”

Dixon said the unwanted remarks are making an already stressful situation for the restaurant industry worse.

“Restaurants do not want to be operating at 50% capacity and have all these extra guidelines levied upon us,” he said. “Revenue is down, and we are just trying to survive and keep our staff and patrons safe at the same time.”

The mandate

On July 6, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice ordered masks to be worn in buildings outside of a resident’s home starting July 7. Dixon says that mandate, along with some health department mandates, puts restaurant employees in the unwanted position of trying to enforce them.

“Please keep that in mind when you get frustrated,” Dixon said. “We are doing our absolute best. We promise.”

“We politely tell them they have to wear a mask, and if they refuse we ask them to leave,” Megan Hetzer said.

Drew Hetzer says he doesn’t get why some people don’t understand that it’s a requirement and major health issue, instead trying to turn it into a debate about rights.

“We are doing what’s required, and it’s for the safety of others, including our staff and customers,” Hetzer said. “Nobody is taking anyone’s rights away. Really, I believe one of the most unselfish things you can do is wear a mask because it shows you are thinking of others’ well-being and mutual respect of others.”

‘It should be my choice’

Raymond Smith, 58, of Huntington, was walking around Pullman Square this past Wednesday without a mask and said he doesn’t go to restaurants because of the face-covering mandate.

“It should be my choice, but I am not going to argue with business people or the governor over it,” he said. “I just stay home and cook. I get outside as much as I can without a mask. They haven’t mandated wearing them outside, so I don’t.”

College students Emi-Jo Hammond, who attends Marshall University, and Gabby Hall, who attends Shawnee State University, both wore a mask while being seated for lunch Wednesday at The Peddler.

“Experts say masks help to keep everyone safer, so I don’t understand why some people have an issue with it,” Hammond said. “We should be supporting our local restaurants and not being critical of them.”

Hall agreed.

“I know it’s something we have to get used to, but would people rather the business close down or would they rather wear a mask so they can stay open?” Hall wondered. “I don’t understand why some people are making this a big deal. Do what’s right and wear a mask.”

Protocols in place

Dixon said Christopher’s Eats already has protocols in place to deal with angry or upset customers, so not a lot of additional training was needed for his staff.

“They are trained to walk away and get someone in management,” he said. “Our managers keep an eye out so our servers and hosts don’t have to deal with it.”

Dixon urges those coming to the restaurant to learn about the new guidelines that require face coverings when you enter the building until you reach your table, to and from the restroom as you pass by other customers and staff, while sitting at the bar interacting with bartenders and other guests, when exiting the building as soon as you and your party leave the table and when picking up to-go food.

“We appreciate everyone’s continued support and understanding during this uncertain time,” he said. We are committed to your safety, as well as our own. Let’s fight this together.”

Businesses seeking answers

Bill Bissett, president and CEO of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce, said his member businesses are seeking information to keep customers and staff safe during the pandemic.

“We’ve been sharing information as the COVID-19 situation changes with our membership,” Bissett said. “A great resource has been the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, as we’ve found that most of the questions from businesses have been specific in nature and the health department has been great about providing answers quickly to protect both customers and employers. While we share information when available, we’re not the experts, which is why we connect our membership with health professionals so local businesses have the most accurate and up-to-date information.”

Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, says he will continue to use his platform to help small businesses and issues they are having due to the pandemic.

“I’ve kept in contact with local small-business owners and have been advocating for them with the governor’s office directly to hear their front-line concerns and suggestions,” Hornbuckle said. “If we were to go back for a special session, I would also request that the topic of small-business survival be put near the top of the list, right behind school reopenings, to address their obstacles to sustainability amidst our current environment.”

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.

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