A customer leaves El Faro at the corner of Folsom and 20th streets on Jan. 4, 2022. Photo by Anlan Cheney.

While public health officials stressed this week that individuals, to protect themselves against Covid-19, should upgrade their masks to either the more protective N95 or a surgical and cloth mask layered together, a random survey of essential workers by Mission Local at local restaurants indicated that only a few are following the advice.

Instead, the majority are using a cloth or surgical mask, unlayered. 

And, despite widespread agreement that N95s and equivalents are the most effective masks, the city has stopped short of handing out free N95s and KN95s like several state and city governments, usually in lieu of at-home rapid antigen test kits, in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Boston, New York and New York City and Washington as well as the local public health authorities of Grand Forks, North Dakota.

For now, said Dr. Susan Phillip, San Francisco’s health officer, earlier this week, the city’s strategy is to give people “information.” Phillip explained that the city is encouraging people to  upgrade protection with more “easily obtainable” masking options, thereby “prioritizing our healthcare workforce for [N95s], to make sure they remain available and essential workers have access to those around the city.”

For essential workers at restaurants, however, the city’s messaging on Covid-19 guidance has been confusing, said Patrick Kocourek, the co-owner of El Faro, at 20th and Folsom streets, where staff were wearing surgical masks. 

“They keep changing it, keep promising,” he said. El Faro stayed open through the pandemic by “washing, cleaning, disinfecting,” he said. He paused, smiled and added “worrying” to the list. He said they don’t require employees to wear a specific type of mask. 

At other places, owners and managers seemed unaware of the latest guidelines, or the varying degrees of efficacy. 

The team at The Spice Jar, at 2500 Bryant St., a stone’s throw from Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, usually cuts a sharp profile, but especially so yesterday, in their matching, black N95 face masks.

With the omicron variant spreading, restaurant general manager Kiwamu Katayama said they started last week to provide and require staff to wear the more protective mask.

“Right now, so many restaurants can’t open because they don’t have the staff,” said Katayama. He has been with The Spice Jar since January, 2020, and said they have managed to stay open throughout the pandemic.

They’re trying to avoid the situation that breakfast and lunch spot Boogaloos is in. According to a sign posted on Boogaloos’ front door, at 22nd and Valencia streets, the restaurant is closed until Jan. 9 because an employee contracted covid.

“All of our employees were already vaccinated against the Covid-19 virus,” read the sign, which thanks customers for their support during “this trying time.” 

Mission Local spoke with managers and staff on Wednesday at five other restaurants and cafes along the 20th Street, 24th Street, and Valencia Street corridors to better understand how businesses are protecting their essential workers.

All of the establishments provided masks to staff and customers as needed, but they differed on what types. The most protective N95s and their equivalents were the least frequently used mask; none opted for double masking with a cloth and surgical mask, an option supported by University of California, San Francisco, doctors Diane Havlir and Monica Gandhi. Instead, at most establishments, it was either a cloth mask or a surgical mask.

Many favored surgical masks or leaving the choice of what face mask to wear up to their employees. 

Min Cha, manager at Kazan, near 24th and York streets, had surgical masks on hand but said the restaurant allows staff, who have all received their booster, to choose their own masks, even though she was aware N95s are the most protective. 

Cha, who was wearing a cloth mask with an attachable neck strap, motioned to the busy back end of the dining area where steam emanated from the open kitchen. “The work is fast-paced,” she said, “and it can be hard to breathe.” 

Jessie, a food handler at Dagwood & Scoops, at 24th and Hampshire streets, was wearing a surgical mask provided by her employer. She wasn’t aware that masks like the N95 were considered more effective, but did not appear concerned. It was important to “just keep them on all the time,” she said.

At Senor Sisig, on Valencia Street between 20th and 21st, staff choose between bringing their own masks or wearing the surgical masks provided. Shift lead Alex Elias, who was wearing his own cloth mask, was aware of the different grade of protection offered by different masks, but expressed more concern about the general state of masking. 

“I think people are feeling we are out of the woods,” he said, explaining they try their best to enforce the mask requirements for customers at the store. “If people were wearing masks more often, I would feel safer.”

Eiad Eltawil, owner of Yasmin, at the corner of Valencia and 19th streets, provides “whatever is on the market” for his employees and customers that need masks. This week, it was surgical masks.

A sign at Boogaloos on the corner of Valencia and 21st streets on Jan. 4, 2022, explains a temporary closure due to a staff member contracting Covid-19. Photo by Anlan Cheney.

Havlir and Gandhi told Mission Local they support both double-masking and N95 equivalent options, noting this is especially important for more at-risk populations like the elderly and immunocompromised.

“We should promote and provide access to these masks through as many outlets as possible,” wrote Havlir in an email. “Protecting against serious disease (vaccines including boosters) and masks (breaking chains of transmission) are critical at this juncture to keep our communities open and healthy.”

Gandhi wrote in an email that N95, KN95, FFP2, or KF94 masks are ideal for persons most susceptible to severe breakthrough infections, but added that layering “a surgical mask with a cloth mask is as effective as those options.”

She pointed out that double or layered masking may be a better choice for some since, in addition to being more comfortable, they don’t have to be fit-tested, or checked to ensure the mask seals securely, like N95s.

At Sightglass Coffee, on 20th Street between Florida and Harrison streets, barista Snow Martin and a colleague were wearing KN95s. Snow said the cafe buys them in bulk for staff. “It’s what’s safe,” he said. “Obviously, the safer the better, right?”

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"Annie" is originally from Nebraska, where she found her calling to journalism as editor of her high school newsletter. Before returning to the field, she studied peace and political science in the Balkans, taught elementary and middle school, and worked as an epidemiologist during the COVID-19 pandemic. Follow her on Twitter @anlancheney.

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  1. What if I can’t find any N95 masks? I haven’t been able to get my hands on any, this entire time. The best I got were shipped to me after 2 months of waiting, last year, and they smelled like chemicals and absolutely weren’t the real deal.

    1. Mabel — 

      If need be, as noted in the story, at least one study shows that a surgical mask beneath a cloth mask is on par as effective as an N95.

      Best,

      JE

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this article. This is a big shift caused by Omicron that isn’t getting as much attention as it needs to — and our government really needs to be making N95s cheap and easily accessible.

    1. Though I will say I don’t take much of what Monica Gandhi has to say seriously anymore, so I’m taking her cloth-masks-plus-surgical-masks-are-basically-as-good-as-N95s comment with a big grain of salt.

  3. Dr. Susan Phillip says SFDPH provides “information”. Really, do they have any data on the protection provided by “information.” Will “information” tell the T-cells to act up? How long will it take for the “information” to wane? And then she goes on to say the city is encouraging people to upgrade protection with more “easily obtainable” masking options, thereby “prioritizing our healthcare workforce for [N95s] to make sure they remain available and essential workers have access to those around the city.” That’s some interesting information. N95s are “easily attainable” yet, after two years, the City must hoard their supplies for healthcare workers. You mean those at Kaiser who were denied PPE until they threatened to strike, or those at UCSF who are required to reuse their N95s? As for the limited, and/or pointless, “information” DPH deigns to provide, don’t get me started.

  4. YES. Buy N95 masks from a reliable company (e.g.3M) and a trustable source (e.g. Project N95).