Business

The small business masking dilemma: ‘You feel like you’re the police’

A face mask is seen in front of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on May 26, 2020 at Wall Street in New York City. (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

(CNN) — Masks on. Masks off. Masks on — again.

New federal guidance last week urged everyone — regardless of vaccination status — to mask up in areas with substantial or high COVID transmission whenever they’re in an indoor public setting.

In the absence of legal rules issued by local authorities — like the kind New York City just issued this week — Main Street businesses have to once more rethink their COVID safety protocols.

Small businesses don’t have to follow federal guidance. But it is a benchmark indicator of just how out of control the pandemic still is thanks to the delta variant and a lower-than-desired vaccination rate.

Five small business owners in states with big COVID surges were asked what changes they plan to make in the wake of the latest federal guidance.

Andy Rodriguez, co-founder and CEO of The Salty Donut with five locations in Florida and Texas, will make a call in the next week about whether and how to ask customers to mask up again.

“We’re deciding what to do,” Rodriguez said, noting that he’s waiting either for local authorities to issue their own guidance, or in the absence of that, at least see what other big businesses in the area will do so it won’t feel like The Salty Donut is the first out of the gate to make a big change.

“People got used to walking in without a mask. So you run the risk of making them do something they don’t want to do. You feel like you’re the police,” Rodriguez said.

He said there wasn’t too much pushback from customers about wearing masks earlier in the pandemic, but there was some. And now he’s wary there may be more since people no longer are used to being asked to wear them.

As for his roughly 150 employees, they have been masked throughout the pandemic, even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in May issued guidance that anyone who is vaccinated didn’t have to worry about masking in many circumstances.

He hasn’t required nor has he asked his staff whether they are vaccinated, but he gets the sense most are. And he has communicated to employees where they can get a free vaccine and that the company would make accommodations for them to do so, whether it’s paying for their Uber to get to the vaccine site or allowing them to take time off if they don’t feel well.

Claudia Banks is co-owner of a face-painting and entertainment supplies and events company called Silly Farm in South Florida.

After the earlier federal guidance said that the vaccinated could go mask-free, Banks decided to lift her requirement that employees and customers wear masks.

She said a majority of her now-11-person staff is already vaccinated. And those who aren’t continued to mask in May, because they saw what COVID did to a colleague who went on a ventilator early in the pandemic and still has lingering effects. “People here saw what [their colleague] went through and they know it’s serious,” she said.

But last week, after seeing Florida’s case numbers “go through the roof” and after the CDC revised its guidance, she sent a memo to employees saying they all had to wear masks in common areas in the company’s 10,000-square-foot facility, but could take it off in their own office if they had one. Customers are also again being asked to wear masks now.

Banks worries though that most businesses in her area aren’t taking the latest surge seriously, noting that in a recent visit to Delray Beach, the place was packed and no one was wearing masks, not even waiters in the restaurants.

“We live in Florida where nobody cares,” Banks said.

And she worries that will hurt her business if people and companies start canceling events again if the virus isn’t brought under control soon.

Like many businesses, Made in KC, which sells gifts, coffees, spirits and wines made in Kansas City, Missouri, has operated under a few different safety protocols throughout the pandemic.

Co-owner Tyler Enders said before May, his 115 employees all wore masks and worked behind plexiglass barriers while customers were asked to mask and social distance in the company’s dozen stores in Missouri and Kansas.

But once the CDC issued its no-mask guidance for the vaccinated in mid-May, Enders told staff he would ask them to continue masking for five weeks, after which only unvaccinated employees would have to continue doing so. His reasoning for the delay: “We didn’t want you to feel we’re outing you if you’re unvaccinated, and we let employees take time off to get the vaccine.”

But after last week’s announcement, Enders said, all customer-facing employees are wearing masks but non-customer-facing employees don’t have to if they’re vaccinated.

As for customers, “we’re not asking them to do anything. We hope that the unvaccinated will wear a mask and that everyone will do so. But we’re not asking employees to enforce it,” Enders said.

Running an early child care and children’s education center with a skating rink meant revising safety procedures multiple times during the pandemic, sometimes more than once in a two-week period.

Until June, Lesia Daniel-Hollingshead, co-owner of Funtime Clinton in Clinton, Mississippi, required her approximately 100 employees to wear masks, as well as the parents of the nearly 400 children now enrolled at her company Monday through Friday, although the children themselves were not required to do so.

After June 1, masks were made optional for all staff, except those escorting kids to and from their classrooms and transportation. But Daniel-Hollingshead continued to ask parents to wear them when they dropped off or picked up their children and they still were not allowed inside Funtime’s facilities.

But by July 15, she saw daily COVID cases rising in Mississippi. So she told staff masks would be required for anyone who couldn’t show proof of vaccination. Then just five days later, she changed the policy again, requiring all employees regardless of vaccination status to mask up. That preceded the CDC’s July 27 announcement, which she said served to confirm her instincts.

Throughout all of it, she hasn’t gotten pushback from employees, a couple of whom had gotten COVID and in one case had to be hospitalized, Daniel-Hollingshead said. “Our staff have been very, very cooperative.”

Cali Benford, owner of Bellissimo Salon in Greensboro, Georgia, stopped requiring that customers wear masks about a month and a half ago, if they said they were vaccinated.

“I take their word for it,” Benford said.

As for staff, it’s just her, another stylist and an assistant working in a 2,800-square-foot space. So there’s room to spread out. Plus, they’re vaccinated. But they will put a mask on if it makes a customer feel more comfortable, she said.

While Benford doesn’t have plans yet to make any changes to her current policy, she said she will ask everyone to mask up again if she sees any further surge in cases. As for whether she anticipates there could be pushback from some customers, she said, “They would probably have words.”

But that wouldn’t deter her from making it a requirement for customers again, especially since she has three very young children at home. “I’m not scared of the virus, but I am going to be cautious. So I will strongly suggest they wear them if they’re not vaccinated” Benford said.

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