Business Organizations

Tough call for businesses: Require masks or not?

LEWISTON — Maine businesses, already challenged by a worker shortage, will face an additional test Monday of whether to require masks.

Last week, the state removed the mandate that the public mask up indoors. Starting Monday, it will be up to businesses and organizations to decide whether to ask customers to mask up, whether to ask for proof of vaccination, or do neither. No matter what they do, business owners and supporters say they will face flak.

Beginning Monday, while the Maine Center for Disease Control recommends those not vaccinated against COVID mask up, the state is no longer mandating it.

Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine CDC, noted that Maine continues to lead the nation in the number of people age 18 and older who have been vaccinated, with a slight majority — 56% — of the total population being fully vaccinated.

“It’s also important to note that the recommendation that unvaccinated people wear masks indoors has not changed,” Long said Friday in an email. “Every Maine business or organization other than schools, child care programs, and public transportation providers can make its own determination on whether to require masks, proof of vaccination, or take other measures to limit potential spread of the virus.”

Businesses and other organizations may adopt policies for their employees and clients to require wearing a mask, require vaccination or require proof of vaccination to avoid wearing a mask, according to the Maine CDC.

Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Shanna Cox at the Lewiston headquarters. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Shanna Cox, president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said that leaves business owners in a difficult spot. “How do we verify who’s vaccinated or not?” Cox asked. “No one’s prepared. We don’t have the tools.”

Checking for vaccination cards would put employees in confrontational positions with some customers, she said. And a customer who does show a vaccination card, “how do we know if it’s a legitimate document?”

For that reason, it’s expected that many businesses and organizations will allow unmasked customers and not ask for proof of vaccination, including the Maine Mall in Portland and several large retailers.

Hannaford supermarkets will ask those not vaccinated to wear a mask.

“Individuals who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will no longer be required to wear masks in our stores, except in those states and towns where a local law or ordinance requires mask usage,” according to a statement released by Hannaford spokesman Eric Blom. “Individuals who have not received COVID-19 vaccination are asked to wear masks while shopping.”

Hannaford will not require proof of vaccination, Blom said.

Some business owners contacted, however, said they will continue to require masks, saying it’s still too early and too few people are fully vaccinated.

Lewiston’s Baxter Brewing will require customers and workers to wear masks in the restaurant and brewery.

Caitlyn Page, operations manager for Baxter Pub in Lewiston, said the brewery and pub will continue to require staff and patrons to wear masks to ensure safety. Submitted photo

“While we understand the plan for reopening and easing of restrictions, we plan to continue to require masks while not seated, both in our indoor and outdoor space,” Baxter Pub Manager Caitlyn Page said in an email.

“We will make no immediate changes to any protocols that were in place in April,” she said.

Social distancing rules of 6 feet will remain in place, indoor capacity will not be expanded, and workers will remain masked for their and the public’s protection, she said.

Baxter’s protocols are stricter than the Maine CDC, Page acknowledged, but the company feels it’s what’s best in terms of safety for workers and customers.

The thrift store for Androscoggin Home Healthcare + Hospice will also stick to masking and social distancing, President Ken Albert said.

Guidance from the U.S. CDC and the Maine CDC says masks should be worn by people not fully vaccinated, Albert said Friday in an email. And, he said, COVID  -19 rates in Androscoggin County continue to be among the highest in Maine and in the United States. Meanwhile vaccination rates in the county are lower than the state average.

What many businesses will do, Cox said, is post signs saying the Maine CDC recommends people who are unvaccinated wear a mask and hope the honor system works.

“We hope that people take the CDC recommendation to heart,” she said. Signs will be at event venues and businesses, she said. “We want to believe that 99% of people walking in our doors will do the right thing.”

Locally, a number of hospitality businesses will follow Baxter’s lead and ask all customers to wear masks to protect workers and customers, Cox said. But the experience will be different at different businesses and organizations. It will likely be confusing, she said.

The time may be right for the state as a whole to unmask, but Androscoggin County is lagging behind the state average in the rates of people vaccinated, Cox said. “And what’s getting lost (in the discussion) is that a large portion of the population, ages 11 and younger, aren’t able to get vaccinated.”

She worries the lack of state masking mandate could polarize people in several ways and prompt harassment. It could further pit anti-maskers against those who continue to wear masks out of safety concerns. Or, some might assume a shopper wearing a mask has not been vaccinated when that person has been, but is worried about others not being vaccinated.

The chamber president said she hopes the easing of COVID-19 restrictions will not lead to higher numbers of cases.

“We recognize what’s at stake: future shutdowns,” Cox said. “We all know what can happen. We’ve been through it.”

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