‘Everyone looks happier’: Retail, hospitality workers on first mask-free shift
Service with a smile has returned to Melbourne, as hospitality and retail workers shed their masks after two years of COVID-19 restrictions.
Their beaming faces could be seen in the shops and cafes on Northcote’s High Street, in the city’s inner north, on Saturday morning.
Bec Moore, owner of café Tinker on High Street, Northcote, delivers a coffee with a “hospo smile”. Credit:Scott McNaughton
The COVID-19 mask mandate for hospitality and retail workers was eased at 11.59pm on Friday, following the Victorian government’s announcement on Wednesday. Patron vaccination checks and close contact isolation requirements were also scrapped.
Meg Funston, a shop assistant at gift shop The Phoenix and Turtle, said after some initial safety anxiety, she was relaxing into serving customers mask-free.
“It is nice to be able to talk to people a little easier and engage with them,” she said. “You can smile at people, and they actually know you’re smiling.”
The rule change marks the end of a trying time for retail and hospitality staff, who wore masks while customers were no longer required to and bore the brunt of enforcing the mandate.
“That was a little uncomfortable,” said Funston, who found it difficult as a young person to tell mask-refusing adults they had to obey the rule or leave the shop.
Meg Funston, who works at gift shop The Phoenix and the Turtle, enjoyed her first shift mask-free.Credit:Scott McNaughton
Bec Moore, one of the owners of the Tinker Northcote cafe, said staff had their “hospo smiles” back on.
“It feels like we’re back to normal, finally,” she said.
When masks were first mandated in July 2020, Moore felt interaction between staff and customers became stilted and distant.
“People just didn’t know how to interact with one another,” she said. “It was a bit strange.”
But everyone soon got used to it, Moore said, so much so that there would now be an adjustment returning to exposed faces.
“I’ve actually had a couple of staff say that they prefer having a mask on because they don’t have to wear makeup,” she said.
“It’s not even a health thing anymore, it’s more about comfort. You can hide behind a mask.”
Other retail workers on High Street, who didn’t want to be named, told The Sunday Age that they had made the decision to keep wearing a mask for safety reasons.
Leesha Wild said it was the first time many of her customers at Tinker had seen her without a mask on.Credit:Scott McNaughton
Leesha Wild joined Tinker four weeks before the mandate was introduced. She said most of her customers had never seen the bottom half of her face before.
“It’s like meeting them for the first time,” she said. “It’s a lot better. It’s a lot more personal now.”
Laura Ciurleo, owner of Fresh Flowers on High, said the atmosphere in the shop had become more relaxed without masks.
Laura Ciurleo from Fresh Flowers on High said the feeling working mask-free was wonderful.Credit:Scott McNaughton
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s about time.”
Customers were also happy with the easing of the mandate.
Northcote local Kate Liggett, who was chatting over brunch at a table on the front of Tinker, said it was nice to be able to see the cafe workers’ expressions again.
“Everyone looks happier,” she said. “You can relate to people and engage with them better.”
Another Tinker diner, healthcare worker Phoebe Hueston, said she felt comfortable with the change despite being immunocompromised.
“I’ve already made the choice to enter somewhere where people are already not going to be wearing masks,” she said. “I’ve weighed up the risks.”
Hueston, a Tinker regular, said she had appreciated that staff had worn their masks correctly, and for so long.
“I’m also excited for them to not have to wear masks anymore,” she said.
Mariread Vear, who was browsing at The Phoenix and Turtle, said she empathised with workers who had to wear masks, while customers were no longer required to.
“It’s lovely to see their smiles again,” she said.
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