New contact-tracing rule puts service workers on enforcement frontlines - Albuquerque Journal

New contact-tracing rule puts service workers on enforcement frontlines

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Mark and Angie Burgos of Albuquerque drop their contact information into the drum at Laguna Burger in Albuquerque on Tuesday. While the governor is now requiring businesses to keep a contact tracing log, the restaurant has already been collecting contact tracing information on a voluntary basis. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Posters and flyers reminding customers to wear a mask, maintain social distance and follow health order guidelines line the walls inside and outside the Carlisle location of Michael Thomas Coffee in Albuquerque, serving as a first step in enforcement of the state’s public health orders.

But even with signs asking people to behave responsibly, the bulk of the enforcement of public health orders has often fallen on the shoulders of baristas and other service workers.

“I feel personally that being a coffee shop that we’re put in the place of enforcing everything,” Michael Thomas Coffee owner Michael Sweeney said. “It’s just like pushed down to the lowest level, meaning my staff ends up having to enforce.”

Starting today, Friday, employees of restaurants and breweries will have another rule to enforce.

As a part of an update to the public health order, restaurants and breweries are now required to keep a log of all customers dining on-site for contact tracing purposes.

Mandatory contact tracing logs for dine-in customers was first floated as an idea in May, but ultimately the proposal was shut down after being met with backlash and privacy concerns.

This time, the order goes into effect at the same the state is experiencing positive coronavirus cases spike to record numbers.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the updates to the public health order are attempts to learn how to live with the virus without completely shutting down the economy.

Reactions mixed

At Mario’s Pizza & Ristorante, at San Pedro south of Menual, co-owner Eddy Burgarello said he wasn’t happy about the change, but he will do it because it is now required.

Burgarello said he is anticipating some of his customers will be unhappy with the change and may opt to carry-out to avoid having to sign a log.

A sign informs customers at Mario’s Pizza & Ristorante of the new requirement that in-house diners have to give their details for contact tracing. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

He also wonders if those signing the log will be truthful.

“How am I going to track if they give accurate or false information?” he asked.

But the change won’t be completely new to all restaurants.

Businesses like Michael Thomas Coffee and Laguna Burger on 12th have already been collecting customers’ contact tracing information on a voluntary basis for several months.

Sweeney said his shops have provided a log for customers to fill out since indoor dining resumed in June, and few customers have raised concerns over the log.

“The contact tracing is fine, we’ve been doing it from the start,” he said.

Sweeney anticipates that any complaints about enforcing the new order will most likely stem from the same people who have complained about other public health orders.

“People that have a difficulty with masks have a difficulty with this too,” he said.

Skip Sayre, Laguna Development chief of marketing, said he doesn’t expect to see a big change when Laguna Burger switches their contact tracing logs from being voluntary to mandatory.

“We anticipate it will be a smooth transition to adhere to the mandatory requirement going forward,” he said.

Sayre said even on a voluntary basis, between 70% and 75% of customers fill out cards with their information, which is later added to a log the restaurant keeps.

Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, said she is hoping the new order won’t be a problem for restaurants or customers since restaurants regularly ask for names and numbers for reservations and food orders.

She acknowledged the bulk of the enforcement of the mandate will fall on restaurant employees. But Wight said she was told by the state that, while employees need to enforce the rules, they can also use discretion if a customer is threatening.

“As much as we are going to be the enforcement for this, (state leaders) don’t want us to necessarily die on that sword,” she said.

Changing roles

Kate Sweeney, manager and coffee roaster at Michael Thomas Coffee, said the job of baristas has completely changed in the past six months as employees have had to shift from welcoming everyone to turning some customers away when they are not in compliance.

“I think the hardest thing is that we’re kind of required to police the public and their personal behaviors, where (in) most other jobs you’re not required to do that,” Kate Sweeney said. “But in customer service since you deal with the public you’re required to make sure that they are following all of the guidelines whether they believe them or not. The people who don’t believe them or don’t want to follow them are very hostile about it and so it could be very, very stressful and taxing.”

Customer Jane McCoy fills out a registry for contact tracing at Michael Thomas Coffee Roasters Wednesday.

The revisions to orders lends itself to more stressful interactions since staff members often are the ones informing customers of the changes and the reasons for the changes, Sweeney said, adding, “Most policy changes that we make take months to become an actual solid policy that people will get on board with and be able to handle and this is like two-day changes.”

Sweeney said that even if the shop agrees with the policy changes, the frustration usually comes from having to parrot the information for hours at a time and many staff members have ended up asking for reduced hours because of the stress.

“Eight hour shifts were just impossible because it’s just so much information that you’re giving to customers, on top of just the stress of preparing yourself for a potential fight or argument,” Sweeney said.

Quinn Scicluna, a barista and roaster’s assistant at the coffee shop who asked for his hours to be reduced, said part of the emotional toll is not knowing how customers will react.

“I have everybody who’s in the middle who’s fine with it (the orders) and then I have people on both extremes who either complain that we’re not doing enough or they complain that we’re doing too much and taking it too far,” he said.

But Scicluna said most customers are understanding and those who are angered are usually not actually angry at service workers.

“People will take out stuff on you that has nothing to do with you,” he said.

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