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Restaurant Workers Say Customer Attacks Are At An All-Time High

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Portland, OR A woman wearing a mask and a hat stands behind a window built into the door at St. Beatrix in Northeast Portland, Oregon. Jess Smith, the owner of St. Beatrix, behind the glass of the cafe’s order window. Molly J. Smith / EPDX

As diners seek a return to normalcy, servers and chefs are bearing the brunt of vitriolic responses to safety measures for the pandemic still in progress

This story mentions threats of physical violence and sexual assault.

At St. Beatrix, the Northeast Portland bakery known for its ranch croissants and flower-adorned cakes, a can of bear mace sits behind the front counter. St. Beatrix owner Jess Smith bought it after a customer threatened to rape one of her employees, one of several incidents in the last eight months that have left her and her staff feeling vulnerable and frustrated. “It’s been super challenging,” she says. “Having to tell customers ‘no,’ they’re not used to that, and they react.”

In the last four months, multiple customers have tried to spit on St. Beatrix employees, threatening them and screaming at them. In response, Smith has continued to up security measures, installing cameras and building a walk-up window with a security barrier for the front counter. “Every incident we’ve encountered, we’ve had to armor ourselves with one more thing,” Smith says. “I’ve experienced sexual harassment, abuse, but to have it almost every day, it feels all the more impactful. It’s all the time.”

Smith is one of several Portland food businesses dealing with an increase in aggressive customer behavior in the months following the COVID-19 vaccine release, particularly since the state lifted its COVID-19 safety framework at the end of June. In the eyes of restaurant workers — many of whom would not speak on-record out of fear of professional retaliation — the frequency of these sorts of incidents is far higher than it was in 2020, as more customers feel entitled to return to traditional service and are upset by continued COVID-19 safety precautions set by individual businesses. As a result, morale among Portland food service workers has dropped substantially, compounded by the undercurrent of fatigue and constant fear inherent to working in food service through the pandemic.

When the state lifted the majority of its COVID-19 safety mandates for businesses, St. Beatrix baker Brit Abuya began to feel unsettled and anxious. Abuya has worked at St. Beatrix for around a year, often taking orders at the front counter; they had coworkers who had yet to get vaccinated because they were immunocompromised, and workers with young children who could get sick. “That’s always in the back of my mind as I’m interacting with customers,” they say. “I don’t think people understand that there are people we work with who are still very much at-risk of getting COVID.” The bakery kept its mask policy in place, offering masks for those who need them. One day, while Abuya was working the front counter, a customer came up to the business without a mask. When they offered him a mask, Abuya says he began to scream,

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Written by Willette Halliday