The appeal of this approach is clear. Repeated masking and unmasking can be tricky, especially if you have a fork in one hand and a knife in the other. Plus, talking in a mask is a bit like swimming in overalls. It can be done, but it takes more effort. If you have reason to believe everyone at your table is healthy, the temptation to speak the way you used to do it can exploit the full range of lower facial distortions, from the closed grin of an inside joke to the sagging jaw of astonishment is very strong.
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has reprimanded restaurants that blatantly disregard the rules of social distancing and masking. A state task force has spearheaded hundreds of facilities for violations and suspended alcohol approvals for some, often when unmasked customers stood in tight clusters.
Much less has been said about the official guidelines for wearing masks while sitting. It's rare to find a restaurant enforcing or even mentioning the advice, although most signs instruct diners to pay through Venmo or to bring up a menu by scanning a QR code. The downtown Frenchette restaurant is unusual because it has a note on its website asking guests to wear masks “when staff are at the table”. I left the other night. The only people in masks were the ones who worked there.
Another downtown restaurant, King, personally asks customers to wear masks while talking to servers. "We occasionally get rude responses," one of the owners' Annie Shi recently wrote of Resy, "but most guests appreciate our care and attention to our employees."
Other restaurant owners may not be aware of the advice of the health department. Or they have heard of mask-hating thugs threatening mask-wearing workers in other parts of the country. Most likely, however, restaurateurs are simply afraid of doing something that will keep customers away. In a summer when a thunderstorm can wipe out a night's revenue, every table counts.
Author and publisher Corby Kummer, whose Food and Society program at the Aspen Institute worked with the James Beard Foundation to create detailed Covid-19 restaurant safety logs, is currently working on what is known as a "code of conduct" for guests. The rules that could be a condition of reservation would be simple and few: whether indoors or outdoors, don't rush to the host booth or toilets, wear a mask when away from the table, and follow polite rules Requirements from the staff. Even these humble requests can make some owners nervous.