Column: Local restaurants and shops deserve our patience with COVID rules more than ever

There are few North Fork institutions as beloved as Magic Fountain in Mattituck. In fact, last year’s most-liked Instagram post on our feed @the_northforker was a simple photo of the iconic ice cream shop lit up on a Saturday night. When we reposted the photo in December as part of a year-end wrap-up, it got even more love than the first time around.

Which is why it was all the more surprising — and distressing — to see the post that went up from Magic Fountain’s own Instagram account earlier this week. 

“March marks a year of pivoting our business model to adapting to a new normal,” the shop’s management shared. “As many of you know, the food service industry has been battered by the pandemic — with many businesses closing permanently. Undoubtedly, it has been a continual challenge adjusting and operating in these unprecedented times. We’ve had to reduce operating hours, retrain our team members, and take on additional expenses to meet safety guidelines. Beyond our commitment to serve our community safely, we strive to provide quality products and friendly customer service.”

“However,” the post continued, “our team of local high school and college students has been confronted with an upsetting reality. Every day, we are abused for enforcing our social distancing and mask policies. We have been threatened with bad reviews and job loss if we do not offer service after closing. We have received job shaming comments and no-tip justifications — ‘the ice cream is already made, you’re just serving it.’” The post added that a worker had been harassed and physically intimidated by a park personnel after he was asked to wait for his turn outside.   

This report is particularly egregious given that it involves grown customers harassing teenagers working for extra cash. But as the post noted, “unfortunately, this reality is not exclusive to our team at Magic Fountain; many local businesses and service industry workers are enduring hostile experiences for enforcing safety protocols.”

Lucharitos owner Marc LaMaina — who has been overseeing the opening of new locations in Center Moriches and Mattituck despite the pandemic — has posted similarly on Facebook about customers refusing to wear masks and being uncivil with staff about distancing rules and wait times.

Most customers get it, LaMaina said, and the North Fork has shown small businesses a ton of love this year. As Magic Fountain’s post acknowledged, “while we are frustrated and exhausted, we remain hopeful … that these disheartening incidents do not truly represent the character of our community.” Since posting, the ice cream shop has been showered with support from its fans.

Still, even a few of these incidents are too many.

After a year of pandemic, it’s understandable that patience has worn thin. Everyone has gone through something — it could be a death of a loved one, feelings of isolation, loss of income or some other sacrifice. Going out is still not the same easy experience it was pre-Covid, and that’s also a loss. Sometimes our frustrations spill over in public. 

But this same shared pain makes it all the more important to have compassion for the strangers we cross paths with. The human scooping your ice cream or ringing up your groceries is dealing with stuff, too. 

North Fork restaurants, wineries and shops have stretched themselves to the limit to spark joy in our community during a dreadful year. My daughter’s 9th birthday was spent separated from most of her friends, but Magic Fountain made an amazing cake to her specifications (half cookie dough, half Oreo, all excess). Taco Tuesday takeout has become a favorite family tradition and local wine stores have delivered right to our house, right when we need it.

Meal kits, new CSAs, outdoor seating, door-to-door deliveries of fresh-caught fish, igloos, virtual tastings — local businesses may have innovated as a matter of survival, but we’ve all benefitted. 

It’s also important to remember that, despite the good news of vaccines and dropping case numbers, small business owners still need to protect their staff members. People who work with the public all day long have a higher risk for Covid-19 exposure than a customer popping into a shop for a short time. 

You may rightfully feel a little bit safer going out these days than you did at the height of the pandemic. But private businesses also may rightfully demand that safety precautions like distancing and masks stay firmly in place. 

“We are still operating in global pandemic mode,” LaMaina aptly wrote. “Even if you are not.”

Be patient, keep everyone safe and know that a pint of rainbow cookie ice cream from Magic Fountain tastes even better when you leave a lavish tip.