We visited 50 restaurants to see who’s following the rules

No masks, reused menus at some establishments; full compliance at others

By , Daily Memphian Updated: June 15, 2020 7:14 PM CT | Published: June 15, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Shelby County will possibly move to Phase 3 of its reopening plan on Monday, June 15. That means restaurants can go to 75% occupancy, though for many, that’s a distinction that will make no practical difference as 6 feet of distance must still be maintained between diners at different tables.

Shelby County Health Dept. gives details on Phase 3

That might be just as well. We sent a team of reporters out to 50 restaurants across the county and found that the rules for reopening are not being followed in several ways, the most significant being the improper use of masks.

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The rules have been the same since restaurants reopened, and they don’t change with Phase 3; the only change is greater occupancy. This is the directive restaurants are to follow for compliance:

Employees involved in food preparation or service are required to wear masks or cloth face coverings that cover the nose and mouth. We saw 24 places in violation. That’s a whopping 48%.

No person at a table should be less than 6 feet apart from any other table. We saw 11 possible violations, or 22%, though some were not as clear as others.

Dining groups should be limited to no more than six people. One violation or 2% (a group of seven diners at Kooky Canuck Downtown).

Bar areas may be used for table seating as long as there is at least 6 feet distance between each group of customers. For example, a married couple may sit next to each other at a bar, but other customers should be seated 6 feet apart from them. There should be no standing room at the bar. Two violations (Silly Goose and Kooky Canuck Downtown); 4%.

All communal use of items and products should be prevented, including, for example, writing utensils, condiment containers, self-service stations, and buffets. Not including pens for signing the check — there’s really no way to be sure it’s a sanitized pen — we noted seven violations, or 14%.

All menus should be disposable, single-patron usage, and/or accessible by personal electronic devices (internet website, QR code, etc.). 12 violations were observed (24%).

All employees should be required to take their temperature or perform a quick health check before entering the work area. We entered the restaurants unannounced and didn’t monitor this.

Live entertainment is not permitted. No violations.

At Fat Larry’s in Bartlett, there were no condiments on the table and menus were on the wall. But none of the servers were wearing masks and no one was seen wearing one in the kitchen. I asked our server why she wasn’t and she said that she’d been working the whole time without one, she’s not worried about it, and I was the first person to even ask her about it. That was on June 8, over a month since restaurants reopened.

At Lost Pizza on Poplar at Humes, Daily Memphian Jane Roberts reported no employees with masks over their faces; some had them hanging loose around their necks. Reporter Drew Hill saw no masks in use at the Silly Goose, where he also spotted crowding around the bar. At Los Comales on Summer Avenue, no employees were wearing a mask, takeout menus were being returned to a pile, ostensibly for re-use, and tables remained crowded in the restaurant; there was no distancing.

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Other violators include El Porton at Poplar Plaza, where only one server wore a mask properly, one wore it beneath her nose, and none of the others nor any visible kitchen workers wore masks. No employees were observed wearing masks at Ciao Baby in Collierville and at TJ Mulligan’s in Cordova. Only about half were seen in masks at Kooky Canuck Downtown, Bangkok Alley on Brookhaven Circle and at Belly Acres in Overton Square.

At numerous places, including Gus’s Fried Chicken in East Memphis, Pop’s Kitchen in Bartlett, the Half Shell on Mt. Moriah, La Baguette in Chickasaw Oaks and Petra Café in Germantown, some employees were not wearing masks and others were. Some employees wearing masks below the nose were noted in numerous locations.

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Places not using disposable menus include Gus’s Fried Chicken in East Memphis, Crazy Cactus, Casablanca on Poplar Avenue, Belly Acres, Half Shell on Mt. Moriah, Brunswick Kitchen, and Petra Café. Paper menus appeared to be reused at Lost Pizza and Los Comales. Belly Acres had laminated menus on the counter.

 Customers who observe what they think are violations to the health directive in a restaurant may report the establishment by contacting the Shelby County Mayor’s Action Line (901-222-2300), the Shelby County Health Department’s COVID-19 Hotline (833-943-1658) or emailing shelbytnhealth@shelbycountytn.gov.

“The Health Department investigates all reports and may address violations a number of ways, first by educating the manager and staff about the health directive and its requirements and rechecking to make sure the requirements are being met. If repeat violations are not rectified, the Health Department has the authority to close the establishment, if that is deemed warranted,” said Joan Carr, the public information officer for the Shelby County Health Department, in a prepared statement.

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Ernie Mellor is the president of the Memphis Restaurant Association and is eager for Phase 3 to begin, but says he’s seen restaurants not complying with the rules and has heard of others.

“I’m sure there are places that aren’t doing it, but there are those that are following it to a T. The message should be that we all need to be following protocol,” he said. “We need to be taking precautions. For those that are being a little slack, they need to step up. For those that are doing the right things, they need to keep doing it.”

All finer restaurants we visited were observed to be in full compliance, including Erling’s, Acre, Restaurant Iris, Beauty Shop, River Oaks, Flight and Owen Brennan’s. Other places deserving of a shout-out for complete compliance include the Rendezvous, Grecian Gourmet, Huey’s Cordova, Slider Inn Midtown, Boscos, Westy’s and India Palace, where a mask is provided for any guest who arrives without one.

We note the special effort taken by Maciel’s, which only allows 10 people in its Downtown restaurant and encourages diners to eat outside.

Dr. Jeff Warren, a physician who is a Memphis City Council member, also wants people to eat outside.

“The latest I’ve read is that you’re 19 times more likely to get COVID indoors than you are outdoors,” he said.

A supporter of widespread mask use, Warren said he’s concerned that people who should understand the rules, such as restaurant employees, still don’t.

“In my mind, that tells me we haven’t shown people what’s needed to keep COVID from exploding again,” he said. “We really need people to understand this is real. There’s been a lot of bad science, inaccurate science, and it’s been made a political issue when it’s biologic. The virus doesn’t care who you’re going to vote for.”

Warren is behind a mask ordinance that would require everyone except people with medical exceptions to wear masks in public. He thinks it would make people feel more comfortable dining out, which would ultimately be good for restaurants. And restaurateurs could require that customers wear masks, something only a handful do at present. 

“There is a whole lot of pressure from business, particularly restaurants, to go to Phase 3, but if they’re not even complying now, should we really do that?”

Contributors include Tom Bailey, Peggy Burch, Chris Herrington, Jane Roberts, Wayne Risher, Beth Gooch, Terry Hollahan, Ron Maxey, Elle Perry, Abigail Warren, Drew Hill and Ronnie Ramos.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do. 


COVID reopening Dr. Jeff Warren Phase 3 Restaurants Phase 2 Face Masks coronavirus Back to Business
Jennifer Biggs

Jennifer Biggs

Jennifer Biggs is a native Memphian and veteran food writer and journalist who covers all things food, dining and spirits related for The Daily Memphian.


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