Despite a clear directive from Gov. Asa Hutchinson that Arkansas restaurant employees who come in contact with customers must wear face masks, some restaurants are still not taking the safety precaution to try and limit the spread of the coronavirus. But Hutchinson said Tuesday he believes most restaurants are following his guidance.
One restaurant that has not required any employees to wear masks, according to an employee who spoke with a KUAR reporter Saturday, is a Chicken Express franchise in Texarkana, Ark. It also appeared that there was no effort by employees to maintain social distancing.
“We’re not required to wear masks,” said the employee who didn’t give her name.
“The owner doesn’t require us to wear the masks, so we don’t,” she said. “None of us are touching your food except the packers themselves. We’re this far apart from you,” she said, noting the space between the drive thru window and the reporter’s car. “We’re not spitting on you, we’re not, you know,” she said, then abruptly walked off.
Arkansas Department of Health Environmental Supervisor Jeff Jackson, who is involved in restaurant compliance, says the employee’s assertion that they don’t have to wear masks is wrong. He referenced guidelines implemented by the governor last June.
“For restaurant workers, all staff who come in contact with patrons must wear a face mask that completely covers their nose and mouth. Staff that are in the back of the house are encouraged to wear a face mask,” Jackson said.
Based on the description of last weekend’s incident, the department took it as a formal complaint, which Jackson said will be investigated.
“Whenever a complaint is sent in to our office, either through our website or through a telephone call, we will send an environmental health specialist out who will look at the facility and have a conversation with them about the directives and how they can make sure their staff are compliant with those directives,” Jackson said.
The corporate office for Chicken Express referred any questions to franchise owners Rick and Melissa Doty, who operate this and several other Chicken Express restaurants in Arkansas and Texas. They did not reply to an email requesting comment Monday which was sent to an address listed for the restaurant on Arkansas Boulevard, or return a voicemail message left Tuesday at their Texarkana business office.
Jackson said if an inspector from the department finds the Chicken Express in violation, a warning will first be issued, then the owners could face fines.
“Our first method of enforcement is always education,” Jackson said. “We want to talk to those restaurant owners and we want to explain to them the reasoning behind the directive and why this is good public health policy and encourage them to comply on their own. Of course, there are other enforcement actions that we can take but we prefer to get compliance by education first.”
During the governor’s weekly press conference on the pandemic Tuesday, KUAR News asked Hutchinson about the restaurant’s refusal to comply with his directive.
“There is a directive still in place for restaurants as to how they operate, their capacity, as well as the requirement for the staff to wear masks,” Hutchinson said.
But the governor said he believes most restaurants in the state are following the guidelines because of the threat of fines or other action.
“Our information is there’s a high level of compliance because there is a risk with the enforcement side. There’s always presumably some outliers, but I think that’s a severe minority and we will take action and answer any complaints whenever we have that information,” Hutchinson said.