Are you a San Francisco restaurant owner or worker who’s struggled with Yelp or Yelpers during the pandemic? If so, we’d love to hear more.
San Francisco-based reviews platform Yelp has made a point of publicizing its efforts to support restaurants during the coronavirus crisis, from an abortive partnership with GoFundMe to new moderation standards that boot certain reviews. Despite that messaging, some of Yelp’s users are still savaging businesses in San Francisco or elsewhere, for the crime of enforcing local mask policies — something that restaurants, by law, must do.
It’s an issue that Eater SF has heard rumblings about since the pandemic began, but one restaurant in particular provides a case study of the behavior: brewery and distillery Seven Stills, specifically its 22,500-square-foot flagship in Mission Bay. The gigantic spot opened with two bars, a huge indoor dining room, and an outdoor beer garden in November of 2019, and remained open even after issues with the state Alcoholic Beverage Control closed its other locations.
When the pandemic hit, however, it shuttered, reopening in late June with takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining. It’s that last offering that posed problems for some Yelp reviewers, the company noted via Instagram this week, writing, “We are continuing to receive negative [Yelp] reviews and feedback because customers have gone somewhere else that didn’t require them to wear a mask or had a more relaxed policy regarding wearing a mask when ordering.” A look at its Yelp page confirms this complaint, with negative reviews stretching back to July regarding expectations that diners don masks when workers approach the table — specifically, that the enforcement of mask policies made them uncomfortable.
The above review, for example, states specifically that the two-star review for Seven Stills is not for the service (“friendly”) or the beer (“really great”) but for the “stressful and anxious” experience — specifically, that, the restaurant enforces San Francisco’s face coverings law, which states:
[Customers] must wear face coverings any time they are not eating or drinking, including but not limited to: while they are waiting to be seated; while reviewing the menu and ordering; while socializing at a table waiting for their food and drinks to be served or after courses or the meal is complete; and any time they leave the table, such as to use a restroom. Customers must also wear face coverings any time servers, bussers, or other Personnel approach their table.
To be fair to that reviewer, there was still a lot of confusion about when and where face coverings must be worn in a restaurant setting, which is why local lobbying group the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA), just a few weeks after that negative review, released a set of signs intended to help restaurants communicate the laws around mask use for diners. It’s unclear if this reviewer was aware of the San Francisco law, and a message sent to them by Eater SF received no response as of publication time.
This review from August 4 (again, after SF’s face covering rules were revised, but prior to the launch of the GGRA’s education policy) also attributes its one-star designation — Yelp’s lowest possible rating — specifically to Seven Stills’ enforcement of the county’s mask policies, as the spot has “great food, drinks.”
“They WILL tell you to keep putting a mask back on everytime they come by your table,” the reviewer writes, saying that “it’s SO stressful and makes you feel anxious while you are just trying to relax for once for the 30-60 minutes you are there.” When contacted by Eater SF, that reviewer initially agreed to an email conversation, but did not respond to the questions sent.
This reviewer did agree to speak with Eater SF and said that mask policies were not the only issue with their Seven Stills night, as “the food was mediocre and the drinks were ok,” and “they also were disorganized in the term that they started a tab under our table number under someone else’s name. And then they were adding our food and drinks to that person’s tab and not trying to remedy that. There were also some not so friendly employees.”
However, they also tell Eater SF that “the masking up was uncomfortable because I never experienced that at an outdoor dining establishment,” which is pretty surprising, given how vehement the city has been about enforcing the law. The reviewer also says that the policies were “inconsistent throughout the night. Some employees asked us to mask up and some didn’t so it was a little confusing.”
“It was also inconvenient,” the reviewer tells Eater SF, “as we were actively eating or drinking which I believe is an exception yet we were told to put down our food and drinks to mask up before we were served.”
According to Yelp spokesperson Brenae Leary, those negative reviews are the exception, not the rule. “We’re seeing the majority of our users trying to drive support to restaurants they love,” she says, and the company is seeing a whopping five time increase in positive reviews from their users year-over-year.
It’s a glow-up Leary attributes to a desire to help during the coronavirus crisis, and it’s aided, she says, by a new function from the company — a strong encouragement to, as a May blog post from the company puts it, “remain empathetic and patient with businesses.” When any user goes to write a review, they’ll get “ghost text” that pushes them toward positive sentiments, as well as a pop-up “reminding users that many businesses are doing their best during COVID-19 and that we appreciate them taking this into consideration if things didn’t go as planned.” That feature launched in July, Leary says.
That means that these review writers likely pushed past these suggestions and prompts, deciding that the issues they faced were serious enough to still merit a negative review. According to Yelp, while reviews that criticize food and service remain fair (if nonempathic) play, there are some reviews that aren’t allowed. From a Yelp statement to Eater SF:
We have a zero tolerance for any claims in reviews of contracting COVID-19 from a business or its employees, or negative reviews about a business being closed during what would be their regular open hours in normal circumstances. In the last few months we’ve also updated our Content Guidelines and do not allow reviews where a user is critical of the safety measures a business is taking, such as requiring masks, modified hours due to the pandemic or other events that are out of a business’s control, such as government regulations.
Leary says that reviews that violate any of those guidelines can be flagged by users (in other words, Yelp isn’t out proactively patrolling reviews), and that their content moderation team will remove any scofflaw reviews. “We saw the lowest removal months when most of the country was shut down during April and May,” Yelp tells Eater SF via statement. “Since May, we’ve seen a month-over-month increase in the removal of pandemic-related content as more businesses and states are opening back up.”
That uptick in removals makes sense, especially given the theme all these reviews share — that the diners felt stressed, anxious, and uncomfortable at the enforcement of mask policies. It’s certainly understandable for anyone who is alive in 2020 to feel stressed, anxious, or uncomfortable at any time of day, regardless of that they’re up to, and it’s equally understandable that folks rely on dining out to escape that angst. But how much can one restaurant do to help diners forget the literal dumpster fire that are These Troubled Times? Is it fair, decent, or right to ask them to violate local laws and endanger their workers so the rest of us can feel “normal” while we grab a beer?