But on Saturday, just before 7:30 a.m., six days after the incident at Abyssinia Market and Coffee House, she flipped her wooden door sign to “Open” and stood armed with a mask, a face shield and three neighborhood friends.
“I see you’re open. That takes a lot of courage,” said Mark Lewis, the first customer of the day, who ordered an almond croissant that filled the room with an aroma of butter and sugar.
“It was this neighborhood that changed my mind,” Damtew replied. She gestured to the rows of Post-it notes with well-wishes that covered her storefront in Old Town Alexandria, Va. “But I was scared.”
Damtew’s experience, part of the coronavirus culture war over face coverings, reflects a growing reality for retail and service workers across the country who are yelled at and sometimes assaulted after asking patrons to wear masks. They have become the primary enforcers for social distancing guidelines inside restaurants and shops, often drawing the ire of people who think mask requirements infringe on their rights.
In Florida, a maskless man was recorded on video shoving a Walmart employee who tried to block him from entering the store. At a Family Dollar store in Michigan, a security guard was killed after trying to enforce mask requirements. A Starbucks customer in California launched an expletive-laden tirade and social media blast against a barista who asked that she wear a mask.
In the Washington region, retail workers are similarly confronting aggressive anti-maskers.
Days after the incident at Abyssinia Market and Coffee House, the owner of the Greek Spot restaurant in Northwest Washington reported on Facebook that a customer had thrown plexiglass at an employee who tried to enforce social distancing guidelines.
About a week earlier, at Ted’s Bulletin in Fairfax County’s Merrifield area, a customer threatened to use a fraudulent “mask exemption card” to enter the restaurant barefaced, a restaurant manager said.
Local business owners say the majority of patrons gladly adhere to public health guidelines, but the minority who refuse are leaving retail and service workers frustrated and scared as coronavirus cases show signs of rebounding in the region.
“A lot of us are nervous to come back to work, and then we finally do and this is the treatment we get?” said Andrew Ceacatura, a bartender at Ted’s Bulletin on Capitol Hill. “It is soul-crushing, to be honest.”
Ceacatura wore a mask with a smile on it for his bartending shift Thursday night. But beneath the artificial grin, he braced himself for customers to walk in with a mask dangling from their chins, as they had every few days since indoor dining in the District reopened June 23.
During a brunch shift last week, he said, he asked an older woman three times to “make sure she had her mask on.” She walked out. On Saturday, he and a manager pleaded with a young woman ordering a boozy milkshake to pull her mask over her nose. She stared them down as she put it on and stormed out of the building. Ceacatura said he refused to work the Sunday brunch shift recently, for the first time in 3½ years, because “whenever it is busy and stressful, that is when things tend to boil over.”
On Thursday night, as Ceacatura kept one eye on the door and another on the glasses of water he filled and refilled, manager Edel McAloon discussed tactics to keep maskless customers out of her restaurant without provoking a fight.
“They tell me it is not a federal law to wear masks. I have learned to say back that it is a restaurant law,” she said, leaning against a table full of hand sanitizer and cleaning spray. “It is hard to describe how I feel when I see them without masks. It’s rage.”
Like McAloon, restaurateurs across the region are discussing how to stay safe when customers refuse to wear masks.
Leah Frelinghuysen, a spokeswoman for Ted’s Bulletin, said employees “received extensive training prior to our reopening on both keeping themselves safe and also in working safely with patrons.” They learned to cite guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Restaurant Association — which call for patrons to wear masks when entering and traveling through establishments — as a de-escalation strategy.
Blair Beach, the general manager at Woodmont Grill in Bethesda, Md., said she has told her staff to “politely approach” people in the lobby and “remind them” that a Montgomery County ordinance requires masks in most public places.
Many clashes over masks end with a customer leaving or covering their face. But some escalate, and police are called. Since June 23, Maryland State Police have reported at least 17 calls in D.C. suburbs related to face-covering disputes. Officers attempt to handle the situation through public education and voluntary compliance, State Police spokesman Greg Shipley said. Only in the most extreme cases would a Maryland officer cite an anti-masker for trespassing or failing to obey a lawful order, Shipley said.
In Alexandria, where police have responded to about five calls related to face coverings in the past two weeks, officers similarly prioritize de-escalation through education.
“We don’t want to be in the business of criminally charging someone for not wearing a mask,” said Lt. Courtney Ballantine of the Alexandria police. “We would encourage them to play by the rules.”
The incidents at Abyssinia and the Greek Spot this month have underscored the risk for local business owners who have chosen to reopen their doors. A local news site, ALXnow, first publicized Damtew’s experience, and owners of the Greek Spot shared theirs on social media. The incidents invoked a flood of anger and support from their neighborhoods.
“Our team member was assaulted and threatened while the customer destructed property and threw everything on the counter as well as the plexiglass screen at her,” the Greek Spot wrote on its Facebook page. “This is not what we come to work for, or what anyone should have to endure while working to provide for themselves and their families.”
The Greek Spot declined to discuss the incident further, citing respect for the employee involved.
“There is a concern — a valid concern, obviously — because of these two recent incidents in our area,” said Charlotte Hall, managing director of the Old Town Business association. “But this is when a manager or an owner needs to step up to the plate and defend their employees.”
Some business owners, however, have decided to opt out of phased reopenings that allow indoor dining, determining that the health and safety risks remain far too high.
Sara Polon, co-founder and chief executive of meal delivery service Soupergirl, has not expanded beyond curbside pickup and delivery, over fear that customers — especially those who refuse to wear masks — could infect vulnerable employees with the virus.
“The responsibility of an owner when they ask people to leave their homes is agonizing,” she said.
Polon said the only way she feels comfortable asking her employees to come to work is if she commits to testing them for the coronavirus at frequent intervals. Every Tuesday morning for the past six weeks, Polon has paid upward of $700 for a doctor to come into her shop and test her employees.
“I am doubling down on my decision to not make any changes,” she said of the stories she has heard about customers refusing to wear masks. “There is no timetable to open my doors.”
Other business owners feel they have no choice but to reopen.
Toast, a restaurant management platform, found that as of July 2, restaurants in the District had seen revenue drop 45 percent from the previous year, the most drastic loss of all cities nationwide, according to a spokeswoman for the company. That leaves many restaurants with mountains of bills to pay and an urgent need for employees to show up to work and help draw customers to make ends meet.
Damtew’s 13-year-old son wanted her to keep her restaurant closed after he overheard his mom on a phone call explaining that she had been assaulted while alone at work. But if she had kept her restaurant closed for much longer, Damtew told her son, she might not have been able to afford to open it again.
Corrections: An earlier version of this report misstated when Abyssinia reopened. It reopened Saturday, not Sunday. It also misstated the location of the Greek Spot. It is in the District, not Alexandria. It misstated the local news site that first reported on Lily Damtew’s experience — it was ALXnow.com.