Salt Lake County restaurants say they’re ‘relieved’ over health department’s mask order

Having the county’s backing makes a mask rule ‘easier to enforce,’ trade group’s director says.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Customers wear masks as they wait to order their food, at Caputo's in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022.

Most Salt Lake County bar and restaurant owners are “very relieved” that county health officials ordered a new mask mandate to stall the spread of COVID-19, says the head of their trade group.

“It makes [a mask rule] easier to enforce,” said Michele Corigliano, president of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association. “If it’s up to the restaurant or the bar to say, ‘I want to keep my employees safe, can you please put on a mask?’, I doubt it would go over very well at many of the restaurants around the valley.”

Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, issued a 30-day emergency order on Jan. 7, requiring people to wear face masks in public indoor settings across the county. The order also urged people to wear the more effective respirator masks — such as the N95, KN95 and KF94 masks — rather than simple cloth coverings. The department is working to distribute such masks for free at county libraries and senior centers.

Under state law, Dunn’s order could be overturned by the Salt Lake County Council. After a contentious meeting Tuesday, where anti-mask protesters repeated debunked misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and masking, the council voted 5-4 to hold a special meeting to consider repealing the order. That meeting is set for Thursday, at 4 p.m., at the Salt Lake County Government Center, 2001 S. State St., Salt Lake City.

Restaurant owners are being extra diligent about health and safety rules, Corigliano said, because some have had to close because of staff shortages. She said one local eatery shuttered for five days after its entire staff became ill with COVID-19. “This never happens,” she said. “Usually, if things get crazy, they figure out a way around it. There’s no way around this. When you don’t have any employees, there’s not a solution.”

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign posted at Caputo's, a deli and gourmet food store in Salt Lake City, reminding customers to wear a mask to fend off the COVID-19 vaccine, Wednesday, January 12, 2022.

Matt Caputo, owner of Caputo’s Market and Deli, said his company set stringent COVID-19 policies before the mandate took effect, yet still experienced a short closure due to employee illness.

“We wanted [the mandate], because it really helps,” Caputo said. “It doesn’t get [compliance] to 100%, but we believe that every bit of mitigation helps.”

In addition to asking customers to wear masks, Caputo said his restaurants keep the front and back doors open to increase air flow. He also requires employees to provide a negative test and to be completely symptom-free before returning to work — a rule that exceeds the requirements of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Staff are also encouraged to wear KN95s, and to double-mask. But Caputo said he no longer asks his employees to enforce mask compliance with customers.

“We’ve been spit on, and gotten in fights,” he said. “It’s been something we feel at this point is more dangerous than a customer without a mask.”

The Salt Lake Tribune contacted several bars and restaurants regarding their mask policies, and a majority reported following CDC and local guidelines — which ask patrons to wear masks while entering or exiting the restaurant and while using the restroom, but allowing people to remove masks while sitting at their tables.

A few restaurants said they “encouraged,” rather than required, patrons to wear masks, and ‘Bout Time Pub & Grub in West Jordan responded that masks “were up to the discretion of the diner.”

The operators of Legends Pub & Grill, a sports bar with locations in downtown Salt Lake City and Sandy, posted this week on the right-wing social media platform Telegram that it “will not make anyone follow this absolutely ridiculous tyrant mandate.” Legends, the post said, would let staff and customers make their own decisions about whether or not to wear a mask.

Managers at Legends, contacted by phone this week, declined to comment on its mask policy. The Telegram post was spotted and tweeted by a Salt Lake Tribune reporter.

Corigliano said she can’t remember seeing bars and restaurants struggling so much during earlier waves of the pandemic. “This is just a brand-new thing,” she said.

Public health orders, like the mask mandate, have been controversial throughout the pandemic — but the omicron variant has raised the stakes, because it’s more contagious than past versions of the virus. Because of it, Corigliano said, patrons are staying home out of fear of being infected, and employees continue to fall ill.

The irregular closures, Corigliano said, cause their own problems. “Not only are [the restaurants] not bringing in any money, it causes the guests to be unsure,” she said, adding that customers “think, ‘Well, that place was closed the last time we went, they’re probably not open today so I won’t go back, I’ll go somewhere else.’ That’s why you just never close.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Customers wear masks as they wait for their food, at Caputo's in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022.