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WFAE's Social Distancing series looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work, learn and connect with each other. The series is hosted by reporter Sarah Delia.

Social Distancing: When Asking Someone To Wear A Mask Gets Confrontational

Twenty-three-year-old Kali Hogan is likely the first face you’ll see when you walk into Hello, Sailor, a locally owned restaurant in Cornelius right on the water that has a menu packed with seafood and colorful cocktails. 

She describes her job this way: "You see this position in a lot of older films where people are like, 'Oh let me get in touch with the matire d' to get us a seat at the restaurant.’ And that’s basically what I am. I’m the hook-up to get into the restaurant."

Hogan likes her job and interacting with the public. And she was excited to get to work when Gov. Roy Cooper announced Phase 2 guidelines allowing resturants to have sit-down service at a reduced capacity.

The restaurant came up with a detailed cleaning plan, and when the state's mask mandate was announced, worked to comply with it. Hello, Sailor asks customers to wear a mask when they move around the restaurant or are waiting for a table. They sell them for a dollar if a customer is in need of one.

"You don’t have to sit at the table and pull your mask down every time you take a bite," she said. "It’s really just while you’re walking through the restaurant. We have so many people that come in, even operating at half-capacity. It's a larger-scale resturant; we just want to keep the air clean to the best ability we can."

Credit Kali Hogan
Kali Hogan with her manager, Logan, are asking customers to mask up when waiting for a table at Hello, Sailor.

But many customers are upset when asked to wear a mask while they wait for a table or move about the cabin, so to speak. In fact, many times when Hogan asks a customer to "please wear a mask," it turns into a confrontation.

"Today, in particular, I got asked, ‘Why are you guys doing this? No other restaurants are regulating this, but you guys are.’ I’ve had people tell me 'they are stupid, they don’t work,'" Hogan said. "My manager, Logan, got in a confrontation with a guest that told him, ‘Take the f-ing mask off, it’s stupid and I can’t understand you.’"

In the early days of the mask mandate, the confrontation with customers caught the staff off-guard. After the mandate went into place on June 26, the staff commiserated with each other about the emotional toll it took on the group after just one day.

"I came in the next day and I was like, 'I don’t know about you guys, but I pretty much cried in the car on the way home yesterday.' My manager said, ‘I did too.’ And my other host said, ‘I cried in the bathroom,’" Hogan said. "It was hard to get my myself in the mind space to come to work the next day and say, ‘Today is going to be different, today is going to be better.’"

Most of the customers who take issue with wearing a mask tend to be older she says, although some millennials have also given her a hard time. She’s even had to ask police officers to put a mask on.

"To see police officers come in and just disregard it and get in arguments with me about whether they want to wear the mask or not, it’s just upsetting. It’s like a slap in the face that you just don’t care," Hogan said. "It sets a really poor example for the guests that come in. 'If he doesn’t care, why would I? He’s a police officer. I don't have to wear it if he doesn’t.’"

And she’s observed that where a guest is from can affect their reaction to being asked to wear a mask varies.

"Mecklenburg County is becoming more strict by the day. Iredell County seems to be lackadaisical on it. This is where it’s caused a lot of tension in my lap," she said. "We have people that come in and that are not used to going out and being required to wear a mask."

No matter who takes issue with being asked to a wear a mask, it’s common for politics to come up. It’s a political issue for a lot of guests, and Hogan says they make that issue known.

"One person in particular, when I told him he had to put the mask on said, ‘Well, I can tell this is a house of Democrats.’ And I get that a lot," she said.

But Hogan says it’s not a political issue for her or her co-workers. They just want to stay safe. And another part of keeping the restaurant safe is asking customers to keep their social distance. There are many times when her personal space is invaded at work — like recently when a guest was getting too close and she asked him to take a step back.

"He bullied me from the walk from the host stand to the table," she said. "All I heard was just words coming out of his mouth: 'Don’t get too close,' and just cracking jokes about me taking it seriously.

"And then later, I went to seat somebody next to his table (and) he made it very clear to swerve way out of the way to just let me know that I was uncomfortable with his stance and how close he was towards me. A lot of people have been receptive and comfortable with taking a step back, but others think it’s hilarious."

Hogan has a hard time seeing the humor in the situation. The only restaurant she goes to, she says, is the one she works at. Even simple things that used to be common — like a customer touching her arm to get her attention if her back was turned -- could have health consequences.

"It’s not fun right now to wear the mask or keep space from everybody, but what is even less fun is not being able to see your family," she said. "Essential workers have to take so much responsibly for the community to keep everybody safe, and I think we have a lot of people who don’t recognize how hard it is on us and our personal lives." 

Her grandparents are who she is trying to protect herself for. They’ve had to get creative with in-person visits to make sure no germs are passed.

"It’s been so hard for myself and my grandma. I go and see her and I have to see her through a glass door and just wave and just like talk on the phone," she said. "That’s so hard. I miss her. I want to hug her so bad."

Hogan is going to hold off on that hug while the virus continues to spread and she struggles to keep social distance with guests. She wants to keep her grandparents safe. That’s part of why it’s so hard to see people walk into the restaurant without a mask and give her a hard time when asked to put them on.

What does give her hope is when some guests have come to her defense. The other day, one customer adamantly said over and over he refused to wear a mask. Another customer nearby heard the confrontation.

"He spoke up and just said, 'Hey dude, you have to. Just put it on,'" she recalled.

And that day, she says, she got a little bit of her faith in humanity back.

Those days -- the kind where people stick up for the essential worker, where people see and appreciate the work they do and the care they put into keeping themselves and the restaurant safe -- those are the kind of days she wants to see more of.

In our series Social Distancing, WFAE’s Sarah Delia speaks with you, our listeners about the challenges you’re facing. WFAE is trying to do its best to work remotely, so the majority of this series, including the interviews, are being done from Sarah’s dining room table.

WFAE wants to hear from you. If you’d like to share your story on the new challenges you’re facing in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, give us a call and leave a voicemail. The number is 704-916-9114. Or go wfae.org for more information. Follow WFAE for the latest news. And we hope you and your loved ones are taking care.

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Sarah Delia is a Senior Producer for Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.