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Call it ‘enforcement fatigue’: Restaurant workers are tired of fighting unruly customers

Jed Webber, co-owner of  Gibbet Hill Grill in Groton, spoke with general manager Martha Lisio as they prepared for evening service. Webber said the 90-minute rule is causing the most frustration for diners and staff.
Jed Webber, co-owner of Gibbet Hill Grill in Groton, spoke with general manager Martha Lisio as they prepared for evening service. Webber said the 90-minute rule is causing the most frustration for diners and staff.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Those in the restaurant business call it “enforcement fatigue,’' a weariness that comes from almost a year of policing patrons, telling them their party is too large, they can’t linger longer than 90 minutes, and they have to order food with their drinks.

Now, it’s getting worse. As more people are fully vaccinated, some patrons think the rules no longer apply to them, sparking sometimes nasty confrontations. And with the current dining restrictions in place until the end of May — and not eased entirely until August — those in the industry are frustrated.

“We give people warnings; we have to ask them to leave — we’ve had to involve security and even call the police in a few instances,” said Jamie Pollock, vice president of operations for Big Night Entertainment Group’s Boston venues, which include Empire, Scorpion Bar, and Guy Fieri’s Tequila Cocina. “That is not the norm ... but it is happening more regularly now than it was. The incidents are ramping up on a daily basis.”

When Big Night reopened its restaurants last summer, Pollock said, safety was top of mind for everyone — patrons and staff alike. The company drafted a 21-page manual on keeping a safe pandemic-era environment, and, at first, it was something guests sought out.

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But now, Pollock said, “they are not having it anymore.”

“We hear, ‘I’ve had [COVID-19]’ or ‘I’ve been vaccinated,’” he said. “Most people that come in a [large] group can’t sit together, and they’ll say, ‘We came in the same van’ or ‘We live together.’”

Public resentment of coronavirus restrictions has, in part, cost Big Night Entertainment Group eight managers who quit, Pollack said. He’s personally witnessed situations where guests become “extreme and in-your-face, or they use vulgarities on our staff” and some employees have decided they no longer wish to deal with that.

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Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said this awkward transition phase, when the public’s perception of the pandemic is at odds with the state’s phased approach out of it, was “bound to happen.”

Employees at consumer-facing establishments, from restaurants to gyms to grocery stores, have been acting as a kind of informal public-health police, trying to ensure customers follow pandemic-era guidelines so their businesses can remain open without risk of penalty. So when Governor Charlie Baker this week laid out a plan for lifting most coronavirus restrictions on businesses by Aug. 1, many expressed frustration over what they say is a too slow timeline as resistance to the rules mounts.

In Massachusetts, some new protocols, which include allowing parties of up to 10 people at restaurants and no longer requiring customers to order food with drinks, won’t go into effect until the end of May, amid one of the industry’s busiest seasons. Steve Clark, vice president of government affairs at the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said patrons have already requested reservations for parties larger than six people for Mother’s Day on May 9 and graduation celebrations scheduled before the end of the month.

“We always try to accommodate guests, and for the last year, we’ve had to say no,” he said. But now, “I think a lot of people are vaccinated and ready to go out.”

Jed Webber, co-owner of Webber Restaurant Group, which includes the Scarlet Oak Tavern in Hingham and Gibbet Hill Grill in Groton, said the 90-minute rule is causing the most frustration for diners and staff, especially since it is often unevenly enforced from restaurant to restaurant.

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Most “restaurants are simply ignoring it, but we are trying to do the right thing,” he said. “Some employees are in tears after being berated by guests. We are getting bad reviews. ... It’s hard to stand in front of my staff and tell them we have to adhere to it.”

At Gibbet Hill Grill in Groton, General Manager Martha Lisio and Lead Host Christina Nelson chat about the upcoming evening service.
At Gibbet Hill Grill in Groton, General Manager Martha Lisio and Lead Host Christina Nelson chat about the upcoming evening service.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Like most in the industry, Webber said he’s following the guidelines somewhat blindly, trusting that the protocols recommended by specialists actually make a difference in protecting people and slowing the spread of the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not set a recommended time limit for indoor dining, but the agency does warn diners that “the longer you stay, the more you increase your risk.”

Baker administration officials declined to comment on their timelines for relaxing protocols, instead pointing to remarks the governor made earlier in the week that the state would consider lifting business restrictions before Aug. 1 if public health data supports it.

Prior to the pandemic, Webber said, the average seating time for a party of two was around two hours. So, he’s tested several methods to speed the process, such as taking a party’s food and beverage order the moment they sit down or offering items on the dessert menu to-go, if at all. He said the adjustments are most difficult to make at The Bancroft in Burlington, a steakhouse, where the kitchen staff can’t cook a well-done filet any faster than before the pandemic.

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“We’ve had to change how we greet tables. ... Normally we get them water and then come back, but now we combine steps and visit the table” less often he said. “It’s not very hospitable.”

Lynne, a server at a South Shore restaurant who asked that her last name not be used, recalled one incident when a group of people who work in restaurants sat in her section. She figured they knew the drill better than most and would readily comply. But she faced immediate pushback after telling them they couldn’t order drinks without also ordering food, a rule that has been in place for months.

“When I tell people they have to order something to eat, you’d think I asked them for their first-born child,” she said. A few days later, another group of diners began to “drink heavily,” a cue for Lynne to reiterate the 90-minute dining rule.

“They said, ‘Oh, are you friends with Governor Baker? Is this a Democratic establishment?’” she said, recalling the outburst. “And I said, ‘You have five minutes left’ and printed the check.”

These days, Lynne isn’t shy about telling guests that “they (should) know the rules by now” and encouraging them to eat elsewhere if they would not adhere to them.

But even when restaurants follow the restrictions, she said, customers have figured out how to get around them, such as coming in for drinks and then not touching the one food item, such as a plate of fries, that they ordered for the table. Some ask to move tables when their 90 minutes are up so that they can restart the clock.

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“We’ve been strict with the rules, and that can lose you business,” Pollock of Big Night said. “People feel safe, and they want to do what they believe is their free will to do ... but we have liquor licenses to protect.”


Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.