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MI Restaurant, Bar Owners Learn To Defuse Conflicts Over Masks

bartender with mask
Kevin Lavery
Joe Hiltz serves drinks at the Mayfair Bar in Haslett. He sometimes has to confront customers who refuse to wear a mask in violation of state law.

For some people, wearing a mask in a place of business has moved from a question of safety to an ideological battle.  In Michigan, two high-profile altercations involving masks just weeks apart turned deadly.  Now, some bar and restaurant owners are taking part in training to learn how to de-escalate mask-related conflicts.

A version of this story originally aired on NPR’s All Things Considered.


Tension On The Front Lines

In May, security guard Calvin Munerlyn was shot and killed outside a thrift store in Flint.  He was trying to convince a customer to wear a mask.

Weeks later, another man got into a heated argument over a mask with a convenience store employee near Lansing.  After stabbing another customer, the man was later shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy.

Tragedies such as these have put Michigan’s front-line customer service workforce on high alert.

Joe Hiltz serves drinks at the Mayfair Bar in Haslett.  He’s seen a few patrons defy the state law and come in without a mask.

“There’s a couple of people here that we honestly haven’t felt safe around,” Hiltz says.  “But, we do what we do.  We just deal with it and move on.  I’ve been dealing with drunk people for 20 years, so this is just a different type of situation I have to deal with.”

Customers aren’t served at the bar anymore. They have to stay at their table to be waited on. 

Techniques For Talking

Michigan’s mandatory mask order has thrust many bar and restaurant employees into the unwanted role of compliance officer. 

The industry realized it had to step in.

“Because of COVID and just society being so charged up right now, we said all right, we’ve got to do something specific to prevent disturbances,” says Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association.  

In the history of people having conflicts with people, using the term 'you need to calm down' has never calmed someone down.

 As an ex-police officer, Ellis wanted his members to have the skills to help them de-escalate intense encounters.  For that, he turned to a trusted friend and fellow former officer.

Paul Beasinger owns Keen Training, a company specializing in workplace violence prevention.  In a series of Zoom meetings, Beasinger tells clients that it’s important to listen to their customers with empathy, and avoid “trigger phrases.”

Here’s a big one: “You need to calm down.”

“In the history of people having conflicts with people, using the term ‘you need to calm down’ has never calmed someone down,” Beasinger says.  “Because what that infers is that the person you’re dealing with has lost control.”

Check Your Bias At The Door

Other groups in the U.S. teach similar skills.

One is the National Conflict Resolution Center.

Founded in San Diego in 1983, the group has worked with such clients as the Department of Defense and Toyota. 

Development director Chris Hulburt says employees must practice “active awareness.”  He says that means being aware of your own personal bias.

“Maybe they have his or her own attitude about people who refuse to wear masks,” says Hulburt.  “And that really has to be held in check because that will feed the fire.”

The Michigan Licensed Beverage Association plans to expand its online de-escalation training to a national audience in August. 

In the era of coronavirus, restaurants and bars are finding customer service more challenging than ever.  They’re recognizing that for both patrons and proprietors, the key to success is patience.



Editor's Note 11 a.m. 8-10-2020:  A news report published in the Lansing State Journal on Aug. 10, 2020 indicates the aforementioned stabbing victim, John Duncan III, died of his injuries.


Kevin Lavery served as a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered before retiring in 2023.
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