Hugo’s Tacos closes in Los Angeles after customers refuse to wear masks

Hugo’s Tacos said its employees, mostly Latinos, were called racial slurs and that guests threw objects at them that they refused to wear masks during the ongoing pandemic.

Posted June 28, 2020 at 6:11 pm ET

Hugo’s Tacos, a beloved Los Angeles chain, announced Sunday that it would temporarily close its taco stands after its employees reported growing harassment from customers who refused to wear masks during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The harassment, which ranges from racial slurs to food and objects thrown at employees, “has affected staff,” CEO and co-owner Bill Kohne told BuzzFeed News. Kohne said he wants to give his employees a break as the company searches for solutions to better protect them.

“[Harassment] It’s been reported by employees for as long as we’ve been open in these circumstances, but in the last 4-5 weeks, it’s gotten much more extreme, “said Kohne.

He said many of his employees are Latino and have heard racial slurs from diners who are outraged at wearing a mask when told.

“One of our employees with a mask implored people to behave and follow that simple rule; she was one of the employees who threw water at him,” said Kohne.

The owners closed the Atwater Village and Studio City locations on Sunday, saying, “Our taco stands are exhausted by constant conflict over guests refusing to wear masks.”

“A mask symbolizes nothing more than our desire to keep our staff healthy,” said Hugo’s Tacos in his statement.

Our two Hugo’s Tacos locations are now temporarily closed. We hope to reopen soon when it’s safe!

“The masks have somehow become a symbolic or political statement,” Kohne said, blaming the country’s leaders for turning the mask “into a symbol of something that is not.”

“I am really trying to avoid politics because we are just a taco stand … but you can’t escape the truth,” he said. “Masks have been politicized in the highest part of the country for reasons that have nothing to do with being responsible for one another. And it has encouraged some people to make it a symbol of something that is not.”

Kohne said that when his employees offer a mask to customers without one, they encounter “all kinds of reactions.”

A common response from customers who refuse to wear a mask is that wearing a viola violates their “personal liberties,” he said.

Hugo’s Tacos locations are small, about 400 square feet, according to Kohne, and the restaurant has tried to regulate social distancing and other health codes by marking areas where customers can hang out and closing certain seating areas. Wearing masks is a must, especially when placing an order or any close contact with workers, according to Kohne.

Californians are required to wear face masks in public places. And on Sunday, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered an immediate closure of bars in Los Angeles County as coronavirus cases increased with more than 2,100 new cases the day before.

Frederic J. Brown / Getty Images

People wearing face masks walk down the Santa Monica Pier, which reopened on June 25.

“It’s like suddenly [employees] they have to become a monitor in the schoolyard, and completely for customers who refuse to wear masks, “Kohne said, adding that they were worn out and less willing to work.

“We need to take time out to give them a break and consciously think about what barriers to address,” he said.

One consideration, he said, is to bring in a full-time security guard or “monitor” strictly to enforce proper protocol.

The company also started a GoFundMe for its employees “to make up for lost wages.”

Kohne said he simply wants customers to treat food during the pandemic as if they behave if they visit someone’s home.

“When you walk into a restaurant or business, everyone has a set of rules,” said Kohne. “Fighting with the host, destroying their property, calling them … is behavior beyond imagination.”