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A Cape Cod ice cream shop reopened — and faced harassment so bad one staffer quit, owner says

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/11/2020 Hannah Knowles, Meryl Kornfield
An Atlantic City boardwalk ice cream shop was closed last week. (Mark Makela/Getty Images) An Atlantic City boardwalk ice cream shop was closed last week. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Friday was supposed to be a step back toward normal for Polar Cave Ice Cream Parlour.

Instead, it turned into one of Mark Lawrence’s worst days in close to two decades serving award-winning desserts in Cape Cod.

People disregarded a rule to order an hour before pickup and demanded their ice cream anyway, he wrote on his business’s Facebook page. Customers took out their anger at delays on overwhelmed employees, including a teenage girl who quit, he said. The harassment came as employees around the country face verbal abuse and even violence while trying to navigate a new era of socially distant operations and public health precautions.

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Lawrence said he would have to close back down. Now he’s doing limited orders and pondering the best way forward, according to his posts and local news interviews.

Lawrence had opened quietly Friday ahead of the Mother’s Day weekend, he told Boston 25 News. But a surge in orders quickly crushed the lean staff he had behind the counter. While the number of orders was enough for a staff of seven, he said, only four employees were working that night. About 7 p.m., Lawrence posted on Facebook: “STOP CALLING.”

The teenager who quit after a barrage of abuse, he said, was one of his best workers at a Mashpee, Mass., institution that calls its owner “Papa Bear” and offers a long list of ice cream fun facts on its website. The worker “stuck it through her shift,” Lawrence told local media, despite facing language that “you wouldn’t even say in a men’s locker room.”

“All of the sudden, word spread like wildfire, and nobody listened to what we told them,” Lawrence told Boston 25 News on Saturday. “People have forgotten how to treat other human beings in the six or seven weeks that they’ve been confined to their homes.”

Lawrence didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post, but he told Boston 25 News that he spent Saturday serving a smaller group of customers, many of whom did not get their orders Friday. He called it a “vastly improved operation” in a late-night post, thanking people for following the rules and placing their orders well ahead of pickup time. 

“There were minimal people just pulling up and expecting to be served immediately, they chose to place an order and return or sit and wait,” he wrote. “As one customer said, ‘I can sit here in my car, or sit home and watch TV.’ ” 

“We will continue to tweak our efforts and eventually try again to open full speed ahead,” he added.

Employees in the service sector are on the front lines of a transformed landscape for stores and restaurants, one that’s left some customers frustrated. Many small businesses are reopening with skeleton staffs and tough new rules to minimize spread of the novel coronavirus.

They’ve also struggled to enforce regulations, leading some officials to back off mandates that people wear masks inside businesses. One city in Oklahoma nixed its new rules within a day after store employees were threatened and harassed.

Some clashes over coronavirus-driven restrictions have turned violent, even deadly. A McDonald’s customer in Oklahoma City shot employees after being asked to leave because of new rules, according to officials, and prosecutors say a Family Dollar security guard was shot and killed in Flint, Mich., this month after telling a customer her child had to wear a mask to enter.

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As Massachusetts and other states move to restart economies devastated by the coronavirus, Lawrence suggested in a Facebook post last weekend that his biggest concern was whether customers would return safely. He shared a restaurant owner’s breakdown of all his anxieties about going back to business.

“What I have seen with my own two eyes over the past 8 weeks is that some folks are not being super careful about social distancing,” wrote the owner from Provincetown, another spot on Cape Cod that draws many tourists. “More often, they tend to be people I don’t recognize (meaning they are probably people here for the day or just a short period, like a weekend.)”

Even as Polar Cave limited its sales, a Sunday afternoon update indicated that employees were stretched thin.

“PLEASE [DON’T] CALL,” read a Facebook post at about 3 p.m. “We simply cannot take a person off making ice cream orders to answer.”

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