VENTNOR, N.J. — Perhaps we clutched our masks too tightly, at the ready to put them on out of courtesy if a server came to our table. Perhaps our gazes of alarm were too obvious as a manager and chef emerged from the storefront at Pulia in Ventnor one recent evening without masks to greet a sidewalk table of familiar customers, fist-bumping, close-talking, and essentially vaporizing any illusion of caution the restaurant’s disinfectant-spray-wielding servers had done their diligent best to maintain.
That effort, at least, was more than I could say for the place next door, Aroma Restaurant, where a roving guitarist strolled (without a mask) down a sidewalk packed closely with so many outdoor diners you might have thought it was a flashback to last year, not this Summer of COVID-19.
We had managed to snag a relatively isolated table at the far end of the scrum. But it wasn’t far enough to escape the ire of a mask-hating customer nearby that we had unknowingly offended. On her way out, she veered along the sidewalk directly toward our table and leaned in as she passed, a pale trace of ice cream still glazing her lips, and told us with a menacing hiss: “Stay home!”
Her tone was so frosty, it turned my hot tagliolini to icicles in the bowl.
We had cautiously embraced the idea of outdoor dining as a relatively safe first step back for restaurants. But the pure nastiness of this encounter reflected a sad fact about this world I usually rejoice in: The gradual reboot of restaurants this summer has become about so much more than just a chef-cooked meal or jump-starting an industry desperately in need. Restaurants have become center stage for the broader cultural conflict and politics of wearing masks. Sidewalks and patio tables represent the first public spaces we all get to share since the pandemic shutdowns lifted from cautious yellow to open green. And some of the drama playing out has been ugly — instigated at times by both operators and customers not taking public health concerns seriously enough. Somehow, resisting the proven preventative measure of wearing a mask has become a deluded partisan stand in the name of personal freedom at the expense of genuine concerns for public health.
“STOP WEARING MASKS YOU SHEEP” and “Cry about it snowflake” were just two of the replies to a mask-related tweet I’d written a few days earlier. I had arrived at the Jersey Shore just as outdoor dining began in mid-June and complained that in the first few days, two other Ventnor restaurants I’ve enjoyed in previous years (the Red Room and Santucci’s) were too lax in their early mask-wearing practices — hanging below the nose, dangling around the neck, none at all — and that we’d decided not to stay at either for dinner.
“There has definitely been a learning curve,” says Santucci’s owner, Alicia Santucci, who says mask policies are now being strictly enforced and that employees are given temperature checks each morning.
Getting customers to cooperate can be an even taller challenge, says Red Room owner Jack Gatta.
“A lot of them just don’t care about masks when they get up and walk around ... and I can’t physically grab them and put a mask on ‘em. People get ornery,” he says. “As a business owner you don’t know what the hell to do. You want to fight with this guy? I just wish it would go back to normal.”
Perhaps you’re thinking, “What’s up with Ventnor?” Certainly, videos and memes of mask-resistor tantrums across the country have been firing up social media over the last several weeks. But I was wondering the same thing about Ventnor when we got back to our rental after that Pulia meal only to discover another firestorm emerging from Ventnor’s Sack O’ Subs. A customer had complained about the sub shop’s careless mask practices and reported in a now-deleted Facebook post that she had been yelled at and called a “Nazi” by the staff after voicing concerns. The customer is Jewish. The owner of this Sack O’s location, Fred Spitalnick, who also happens to be Jewish, has since apologized privately and publicly to the customer, saying his “emotions got the best of me.”
Spitalnick declined to comment further on the record when contacted. But the mask-sparked damage to the reputation of this long-standing sub shop might be lasting.
“You can’t un-ring that bell,” says Ventnor Mayor Beth Holtzman, who says she immediately flagged the Sack O’s incident and alerted the governor’s office. “I don’t play with that kind of stuff. Because that was beyond.”
Holtzman was also mortified by my own encounter with the heckler at Pulia, calling it “disgusting. ... People have taken their right of freedom of speech beyond the limits of human decency.”
At the same time, she defended the residents of her city as largely on board with the efforts to contain COVID-19, saying they’d thanked her for the various restrictions her administration enacted at the outset of the pandemic: “To be honest with you, what you’re seeing are people who are not Ventnor residents, the people who raise their kids here and go to school here.”
The city can send code officials and police to issue warnings to businesses that aren’t compliant, Holtzman said, but the rules are virtually impossible to enforce because they’re handled on a county level. As with Philadelphia, where masks are now required in all indoor and outdoor public spaces where people gather, self-enforcement is the expectation. But a week after my own dinner at Pulia, another picture was posted on social media showing the same 5200 block of Atlantic Avenue even more jammed with mask-less crowds.
If the Jersey Shore is any measure of how this summer of dining is going to unfold, it’s going to be a major challenge. No thanks to some instances of “knucklehead behavior” at outdoor restaurants, and a concerning spike in new COVID-19 cases nationwide, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday the state has indefinitely postponed the start of indoor dining, which had originally been planned to resume Thursday. (After an uptick in cases last week, Philadelphia officials Tuesday similarly delayed the relaunch of indoor dining previously planned for this week until Aug. 1.)
But my experiences at the Shore were not entirely hopeless. Yes, large open public spaces like the Ocean City boardwalk and beaches are congested with mask-free tourists — and we did our best to stay away from those crowds. But several individual restaurants I visited in a number of Shore towns took their task seriously and were impressively able to enforce the safety guidelines themselves.
I saw customers without masks politely turned away from the new Black Eyed Susans in Harvey Cedars and also the Red Store in Cape May. Employees who were too careless with their mask-wearing at Water Dog Smoke House in Ventnor were sent home from work. At Josie Kelly’s Public House in Somers Point, the crisply masked staff carefully managed the line of guests waiting for one of the well-spaced seats now set up in its breezy parking lot, where a socially distanced guitarist entertained the crowd. Ample spacing in a parking lot-turned-dining space was also the case at Margate’s Steve & Cookie’s, where our server managed to reassure us that all the menus and pens had been carefully sanitized without crimping the warm and professional service the restaurant is known for.