With mask mandates expiring, businesses bet on their own policies
Come Tuesday, Connecticut's mask mandate ends, though not within the four walls of Staci Glazier's hair salon.
"Because I'm a private business, it's my rules," says Glazier who will continue requiring clients to mask up. "It doesn't matter what the town or the state does; it's my rules."
Glazier left her former salon and opened her one-woman shop, Glaze, in Hamden during the pandemic. She figured it was safer because she could limit exposure for herself and her clients. Plus, she was tired of missing out on work and money, every time another stylist got exposed.
"I don't want to have to close my business again, and I do not believe we're out of the woods," she says. Most clients understand; she's parted ways with those who don't.
The CDC relaxed its mask guidance Friday, advising that nearly 70% of Americans live in a place where it's OK to skip face coverings. Much of the country had already moved on from mask mandates. As of March 1st, indoor mask mandates will remain in only three states — Washington, Oregon and Hawaii. (Oregon's mask mandate will end March 19; Washington's will end March 21, according to statements from those states' governors.)
Recent polls show the country close to evenly split over mask mandates — mostly along party lines. So in effect, many restaurants and corner-stores are navigating their masking policies based on personal choice or risk tolerance.
For the public, that means encountering a potential patchwork of masking, on the job and in daily life.
"This is something that comes up in almost every conversation I have with my patients," says internist Vivek Cherian, who treats hospitalized patients in Chicago. Because they are sick and vulnerable to COVID-19, he says many worry about the end of Illinois's mask mandate this month.
"They're just kind of uncomfortable where we are right now in this pandemic," Cherian says. "Even though things are looking much, much better,...they're also seeing 2,000 people are still dying every day."
How much risk increases as a result of unmasking is a tough question to answer, because it depends on many variables, says Abraar Karan, an infectious disease doctor at Stanford University. "It's not a binary of whether they work or not or don't work — certain masks work much better than others," Karan says, so he still recommends upgrading to N95 masks when in close quarters with others.
The effectiveness in general depends also on things like ventilation, humidity and, of course, how well the mask is worn, Karan says.
It's precisely because they're worn so infrequently in bars and restaurants that Bill Duggan never saw a point to requiring them there in the first place.
"It's become kind of a joke," says Duggan, owner of the landmark Washington D.C. blues bar Madam's Organ, "because people have to wear a mask to walk through the door, but as soon as they have a drink or eating anything, then they don't wear it."
The mandate was to mask unless "actively eating or drinking," which Duggan argues was open to too much interpretation.
Duggan is happy to see D.C.'s indoor mask mandate expire Feb. 28, because he says they've been ineffective as a public health tool, and impossible to enforce.
Instead, he argues, the city should've focused on mandating vaccines for indoor diners; Madam's Organ still checks vaccination cards at the door, even though the city no longer requires it.
Duggan says that's where the battle ought to be fought: "One of my closest friends, as well as a musician who's been with me for 28 years ... he died on November 4th."
The friend didn't want to get vaccinated. Duggan wouldn't let him perform at Madam's Organ as a result. "Truthfully, it got me pissed off as well as heartbroken," he says.
Meanwhile, across most of the country, mask mandates are a thing of the past, or never existed.
Missouri never had a mask mandate; the mandate in Kansas City, where The Campground restaurant is, expired earlier this month.
"We've been kind of in no man's land trying to figure it out ourselves," says Christopher Ciesiel, co-owner of The Campground.
Ciesiel still requires proof of vaccination and strongly recommend masks for indoor seating — in part because he's a former nurse, and because his daughter was too young to vaccinate. He got some pushback, but on balance he says those policies have helped business.
"I feel like now we've kind of whittled away all the guests that would have been problems for us, anyways, so now it almost feels like our clientele is coming to us because we're doing this," he says of the mask recommendations and vaccine requirements.
Recently, for example, a customer with terminal cancer visited the restaurant with her family, leaving home for the first time in two years. "They came here because they felt safe," he says.
It's also helped business, Ciesiel says, because — unlike neighboring stores — he and his staff haven't closed, because they haven't gotten sick.
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