At Hugo’s Tacos in Atwater Village, employees received so much harassment from customers who didn’t want to wear a mask that the Mexican eatery has temporarily shut down both of its locations. Hugo’s CFO Bill Kohne told We Like L.A. that “belligerent” customers called employees racist epithets and threw water at them, simply because those employees were following state and county health guidelines.
Hugo’s Tacos’ takeout windows in both Atwater Village and Studio City were open as of last week. The ordering process is simple. Customers order at one window, then retrieve their items from a second window. Due to the pandemic, customers must wear a mask to be served.
If a customer wasn’t wearing a mask, employees would ask them to put one on. If someone didn’t have a mask on hand, Hugo’s would give them one to wear. Yet some customers flat-out refused. And when those customers would become angry, the employees would suffer.
“There’s a term called ‘hangry,’ you know, when people are hungry and angry and they’re just unreasonable. We’re used to that. But the incidents were just getting more and more frequent,” Kohne told We Like L.A.
After receiving several incident logs about customers refusing to wear masks, Kohne asked a facilities manager to scope out the scene at the Atwater Village location.
“In one hour, he had five encounters that were extremely negative and confrontational with customers over the issue of masks,” Kohne said.
Some customers cited politics, while others claimed the piece of fabric violated their personal liberties. The facilities manager saw one man put on his mask to order and pick up his food. Then, the man backed up onto the sidewalk, pulled his mask off, and declared that he could no longer be told what to do because he was on a public sidewalk.
Other incidents were downright disturbing. Some customers called employees racial slurs. One person threw a liquid believed to be water through the order window at an employee who asked them to wear a mask. The staff then had to throw everything at the window away. Complaints from one store manager include customers swearing and screaming at them, laughing at them, ignoring them, demanding their money back, attempting to explain why masks are unnecessary, and declaring “we’re all gonna die anyway.”
“If you told me when we opened the taco stands that we would need a security guard one day, I never would have believed it,” Kohne said. “But it does seem as though we’re going to [need one]. Not an armed guard, but somebody out there with a bullhorn, sort of like a teacher saying, ‘Hey, you, no mask? Do you need one?’ But even when we’re offering a mask to people, it seems as though they want to turn it into something that it’s just not.”
Even if Hugo’s wanted to let customers order without a mask—to be clear, they don’t—it’s not their decision. Data from our health officials indicates that wearing a cloth face covering can protect other people from your respiratory droplets, which is crucial if you’re unknowingly infected with COVID-19. As such, all businesses must require employees to wear protective gear and enforce mask-wearing among customers. If a county inspector finds a business in violation, that business could be cited or shut down. Kohne said that requiring people to wear masks these days is just like having the proper food handling certificates or washing the cutting board after slicing up chicken. It’s just how things are done.
“Public health is science-based, it’s not affiliated with a political party or a series of beliefs,” Kohne said.
Throughout the pandemic, food service workers have been putting themselves at risk every day that they interact with the public. At Hugo’s, employees who were uncomfortable returning to work were told they didn’t have to do so. Some live with elderly parents or have children with underlying conditions, Kohne said. But after all the harassment, Kohne said, “it just became clear to us that it was in the best interest of everybody that we took a break completely.”
For at least this week, employees have no shifts, but Hugo’s will have a meeting to figure out what will make everyone safer and more comfortable, and what they can do about having a monitor outside to ensure mask compliance. They don’t intend to close permanently or turn into a delivery-only service.
“We open up our places specifically by choosing neighborhoods where we want to ingrain ourselves into the neighborhood fabric. Our model is built on people coming two to three times a week or more, so to not be able to see our regulars would break our hearts. I think everybody just needs a little breather,” Kohne said.
Hugo’s has a GoFundMe for employees who are losing wages due to the temporary closure. Thus far, it’s reached over $22,000. All funds will be split evenly among staff at both locations.
Hugo’s Tacos is far from the only business to receive backlash for following health and safety protocols. A video of a woman throwing a tantrum over masks at a Trader Joe’s in North Hollywood circulated across social media over the weekend. The woman throws down her shopping basket and calls everyone in the store “Democratic pigs.”
In early May, ABC News reported on several violent incidents nationwide involving angry anti-maskers attacking employees. Calvin Munerlyn, a 43-year-old security guard at a Family Dollar in Flint, Mich. was shot and killed after asking a woman to wear a mask. In Orange County, former Chief Health Officer Dr. Nichole Quick resigned due to the threats and backlash she received after ordering residents to wear their masks.
Despite some confusing messaging early on, the mask situation is now clear. You have to wear one in public. If you don’t believe the science, at least know that businesses don’t have a choice when it comes to enforcing health protocols. Throwing a fit just makes an already stressful situation harder for an employee who has no control over the rules.