Irvine-based fast food restaurant In-N-Out unveiled through a memo this week that the chain will ban employees from wearing masks at locations in every state but California and Oregon, becoming one of the first major restaurant chains to formally end the practice following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mandatory masking at restaurants, including In-N-Out, was first introduced in early 2020 due to numerous state and local laws following the COVID-19 pandemic. While stores largely complied, In-N-Out was targeted for bucking masking laws because the burger chain “refused to become the vaccination police.” Stores were temporarily shut down by Bay Area public health officials in late 2021 in both San Francisco and Pleasant Hills as a result.
In-N-Out’s chief legal and business officer Arnie Wensinger famously noted in October 2021 that “We refuse to become the vaccination police for any government. It is unreasonable, invasive, and unsafe to force our restaurant associates to segregate customers into those who may be served and those who may not.”
Despite masking laws ending in 2021 and 2022, employees were still allowed to wear masks due to continued worry over COVID-19, as well as prevention against other diseases. However, after around one year of the open policy, In-N-Out said this week in a company memo that masks will be banned at all non-California and Oregon locations beginning on August 14th.
Businesses like In-N-Out burger are banning staff from wearing masks (unless they provide a medical note) pic.twitter.com/OchZl5STIH
— Dr. Lucky Tran (@luckytran) July 14, 2023
According to the memo, all employees in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Texas, and Utah will no longer be allowed to wear masks, with the lone exception being for medical problems backed up by a note from a physician. The reason given by In-N-Out was due to wanting more “clear and effective” communication and better customer service.
“We are introducing new mask guidelines that emphasize the importance of customer service and the ability to show our Associates’ smiles and other facial features while considering the health and well-being of all individuals,” said the memo. “If employees want to continue wearing a mask, they must provide a medical note for a specific medical condition or health concern that requires them to wear a mask to their manager or In-N-Out’s human resources department. Approved employees must wear a company-provided N-95 mask. The note should clearly state the reason for the exemption and include the estimated duration, if applicable.”
Infectious disease experts blasted the announcement on Monday and Tuesday, saying that it is likely a CDC violation and that the company may not heave heard the last of it. Conversely, many in the industry applauded the announcement, with many hinting that they would do the same soon.
“You would have expected Chick-Fil-A or someone else to really be the first, but instead it was a Southern California chain,” said Tom Schaeffer, a fast food industry analyst, to the Globe on Tuesday. “But they have long been against strict masking policies. They went with it in the beginning, everyone did, but a lot of locations began rebelling against local orders and it turned into a big thing.
“A lot of other places are probably going to follow suit now, or at least after nothing legal pops up. It’s a service industry, and that includes seeing the face. It’s part of the business. Businesses did what they had to do to help prevent COVID, especially when we didn’t know too much about it. But that’s all going away now, so these policies against masks are coming up. This is the starting gun, so to speak. California alone has around 300 of the roughly 400 locations, but to start, it is a decent chunk.”
While California and Oregon were not given timetables for compliance, largely due to concern over local laws and possible lawsuits over employee mask bans, the policy may be expanded to the two states in the near future.
The California Department of Public Health says on its website, as of May 11, 2023, “the CDC will no longer calculate the COVID-19 Community Levels as a result of the sunsetting of the federal public health emergency.”
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