Drop the mask? Honor system guidance worries hotel unions

The CDC may have given fully vaccinated Americans the green light to go mask-free in most indoor settings, but many hotel workers and union leaders remain wary about the latest shift in face-covering guidance.

The unions say their No. 1 priority is getting their members back to work, but the mask issue is rising as a concern of staff who have returned.

“I don’t think it’s clear yet what California or Los Angeles County is going to do in terms of whether or not they’ll allow guests to go unmasked, but the whole idea that the current guidance is on the honor system and if you’re vaccinated, you wear a mask, and if you’re not, you don’t, is probably one of the most unpragmatic ideas I’ve heard in a long time,” said Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11, which represents over 32,000 hospitality workers across Southern California and Arizona.

“From the very beginning of the pandemic, we’ve had a number of guests who, despite mandates, refuse to wear masks,” added Petersen. “So, we’re definitely concerned.”

Petersen also takes issue with mask guidance from the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), which in mid-May brought its recommendations for the hospitality industry in line with the CDC’s update. The AHLA’s updated Safe Stay guidelines now say hotels can relax mask requirements for guests who are fully vaccinated, and those who are unvaccinated are asked to continue to wear masks and social distance. Hotel employees, however, should continue to wear masks indoors, whether vaccinated or not, according to the AHLA.

The trade group does not recommend that hotels ask guests for proof of vaccination.

“Our opinion is that if workers have to wear masks, so should the guests, and I think a lot of guests will feel much more comfortable with everyone being masked up, too,” said Petersen.

Benjy Cannon, a spokesman for Unite Here Local 25, which represents approximately 7,200 hospitality workers across Washington D.C., Northern Virginia and Prince George’s County in Maryland, is similarly critical of the AHLA’s stance. 

“We don’t want a situation where members are categorically required to wear masks but guests have a choice,” said Cannon. “We believe that if the policies in place are safe, then they should be safe for everyone. It shouldn’t be a matter of whether you’re a guest or a worker that determines whether you’re wearing a mask or not but a matter of your vaccination status.”

And when it comes to vaccination status, Cannon said that Unite Here Local 25 is in favor of hotels going beyond the honor system and asking guests for proof.

“Each jurisdiction has issued its own guidelines, and we’re comfortable with that, provided that to the extent that they’re being enforced, they’re being enforced equally between members and guests,” he added.

Soon after the CDC and AHLA released their new directives, major hotel companies like Hilton, Marriott International and IHG Hotels & Resorts quickly followed suit.

At the end of the day, however, it’s local law that dictates such policy, and although mask mandates for the vaccinated are quickly being phased out across the country, individual hotel operators in some destinations may opt to continue requiring them indoors for all guests.

Although Washington D.C., Virginia and Maryland have each dropped indoor mask mandates for fully vaccinated people, for example, Cannon reports that the “overwhelming majority” of Unite Here Local 25 employers have continued to require indoor masking for all, regardless of vaccination status.

In Nevada, where the fully vaccinated are also permitted to go maskless, it’s a different story. According to Geoconda Arguello-Kline, secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents 60,000 hospitality employees across Las Vegas and Reno, some Nevada employers have even phased out mask requirements for workers.

“If workers are vaccinated, they do not have to wear a mask as the employer has directed, but if anyone wants to continue wearing their mask, that is their right and they should be treated with kindness and respect,” Arguello-Kline said.

Despite having survived Covid-19 last year and getting fully vaccinated earlier this year, Alejandro Roldan, a member of Unite Here Local 11 and a former employee of the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, still prefers to err on the side of caution when it comes to mask wearing. He has yet to be called back to work, but when he does return, he said he hopes that L.A.’s hospitality industry will make mask-wearing a continuing priority. 

“You have no way of knowing who’s vaccinated and who’s not,” said Roldan. “And we don’t want to have a third wave.”

How far hotels are willing to challenge guests when it comes to maintaining mask protocols remains to be seen. Unite Here Local 11’s Petersen, however, is skeptical.

“The industry is so, so desperate for revenue,” said Petersen. “The idea that the guest is always right is, you know, overwhelming at this point.” 

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