As Major Fast Food Chains Adapt to Changing Covid-19 Protocols, Some Customers Remain Defiant. Experts Weigh In.

Joel Eisenberg

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Author’s Note

information and excerpts for this article are fully-attributed to several media outlets, including The Los Angeles Times, KTLA News, NBC, The AV Times, UCLA Labor Center, Eat This, Not That, and CNBC. Direct links to all listed and attributed sources are included below.

Introduction

One year ago this week, The Los Angeles Times published an article by Lance Williams that detailed issues faced by several fast food chains, notably McDonald’s, during the early days of the pandemic. See here for the piece, entitled “Diaper Masks, Close Quarters: Fast-Food Restaurants Have Struggled to Protect Workers From COVID-19.”

From the article: There weren’t enough masks, so managers told workers to improvise, offering up a box of dog diapers somebody had left at the store. Often, the outlet was so busy that workers said they had no time to wash their hands, let alone disinfect the countertops. The outlet’s coronavirus information poster was of little help: It was printed in English, and most of the roughly 40 workers spoke Spanish. When the coronavirus surged through the store in May, employees — even those with symptoms — said they were pressured to keep working, according to formal complaints filed with the local health department and the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

The next month, a related article appeared in the Los Angeles Times. As excerpted on the KTLA News website under the title “State Fines Boyle Heights McDonald’s Franchisee for Firing Employees Who Expressed Coronavirus Safety Concerns,” the article discloses the fine and follow-up as $125,900 in lost wages and retaliation penalties and an order to offer the workers their jobs back. See here for article excerpt.

The fine reverberated throughout the oft-beleaguered franchise, and the chain publicly announced efforts to adjust to a new business climate based on changing demands driven by the pandemic.

A June, 2021 NBC report said the following: McDonald's is partnering up with the California Department of Public Health to offer free COVID-19 vaccinations at more than 70 locations beginning June 21. The pop-up clinics will offer vaccines to McDonald's employees, their families, and the general public. Those who get a vaccine at McDonald's will receive a coupon for one free menu item, according to the company. No appointment or health insurance is required, and walk-ups are welcomed. See here for the NBC report.

Despite the efforts, specific McDonald’s franchisees continued to face mounting obstacles as they struggle to return to a pre-pandemic normalized work environment.

Such struggles have become de rigueur in fast food circles since the onset of Covid-19.

On Fast Food Employees and Customers

On a local basis, in Palmdale, California, protests for better and safer working conditions at McDonald’s took place on January 5, 2022. Though not solely relegated to Covid-19 concerns, many of the conditions being protested are a result of lack of adjustment of business practice since the pandemic. See here for The AV Times article, “Palmdale McDonald’s Employees Protest Over Working Conditions, Safety Concerns.”

While all this is going on, customers have also faced continual adjustments parallel to those faced by the franchisees themselves. In a January, 2022 report published by UCLA Labor Center, entitled “Fast Food Frontline,” adjustments made to the majority of fast food chains included primarily new protective equipment and protocols, as well as marketing increases reflecting both. See here for report. Many individual chain franchisees only have drive-throughs available, and many have been suffering financially due to customer increases in online food shopping. A rise in customer demand and dissatisfaction with certain in-dining protocols in part are said to have contributed to an elevation of employee stress, including a stark increase (34%) of employee-related depression issues. Most troubling has has been the rise of verbal abuse on behalf of both employer and customer, measured in the report as 49% of employees having experienced verbal abuse in the workplace, and 37% since Covid confronting issues related to threats, slurs, robberies and assaults.

An ongoing issue on the part of customers is reflected in this May of 2021 piece, “These Two Popular Fast-Food Chains Just Dropped Their Face Mask Rules,” from Eat This, Not That. The chain restaurants in question were Starbucks and Chipotle, that dropped the mask mandate then in practice for fully-vaccinated customers. Note this change in practice was prior to Omicron. See here for article.

Subsequently, however, in direct response to surging national cases (still prior to Omicron), fast food chains including the above soon reinstated customer mask mandates. See here for August, 2021 article from Business Insider, “Workers Brace For Renewed 'Rebellion and Anger' in Stores and Restaurants Amid Changing Mask Guidance.”

The issues remain in the early days of 2022. Today Pfizer announced an imminent Omicron vaccine. The restaurant industry may again re-adjust based on its efficacy. See here for CNBC story, “Pfizer CEO Says Omicron Vaccine Will Be Ready in March.”

Whether the pharmaceutical company‘s new vaccine will be accepted in the marketplace remains to be seen.

Conclusion

As discussed in several of the above articles, recent incidents of customer dissatisfaction in the fast-food industry have led to well-publicized confrontations, some political in nature, others stress-related due to widening senses of fatigue and malaise within our current pandemic era.

Both consumers and employees of fast food chains, as with the rest of the globe, are continuing to adjust and several financial experts have questioned whether some of these businesses will permanently shutter as a result. See my fully-attributed NewsBreak article on the matter here, “National Chain Restaurants Expected to Close in 2022.”

Thank you for reading.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

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