Why some places haven’t given up their mask mandates - CentralMaine.com

2022-09-24 11:44:57 By : Ms. Sarah Yang

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The few cafes, stores and venues in Portland that still require masks say it's to protect their staff and put concerned customers at ease.

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Alison Pray, owner of the popular Standard Baking Co. on Commercial Street in Portland, considered ending her bakery’s mask mandate in late spring.

But then she thought about all the cruise ships that would soon be docking in the harbor, carrying visitors from all over, and decided to hold out a while longer.

“It has been really difficult and challenging to feel like we’re making the right decision or the best decision,” she said this week. “In the end, it comes down to our staff feeling comfortable. I’ve had employees that still feel intimidated coming to work and I need to protect them. That takes priority.”

Emily Rothberg, right, a retail associate at Standard Baking Co., hands a bag of baked goods over a plastic barrier to Nora Gray of Falmouth. The popular Commercial Street bakery still has a mask mandate for employees and customers alike. Gray said she has no issues with the mandate. “I don’t usually wear a mask when I’m out, but I respect it,” she said. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Pray said she’ll likely revisit the requirement soon and perhaps even make a change, but for now she’s comfortable with the decision.

“I’m just really grateful people have made it easy for us and supported our position,” she said. “Many customers have even thanked us for being so cautious.”

At this stage of the pandemic, most people have stopped carrying masks with them everywhere they go. Many stopped a long time ago. Aside from doctors’ offices and other health care-related buildings, the once-ubiquitous requirements are all but nonexistent.Advertisement

But there are still some holdouts – places that either have mandates (yes, businesses are still allowed to impose requirements, even without a formal public health emergency declaration) or that strongly recommend face coverings.

In light of President Biden’s recent declaration that the pandemic is over – though his staff has since walked that back somewhat – seeing mask requirements at businesses and venues can prompt confusion.

Maine is still seeing a fair amount of new COVID cases every day – between 200 and 300 on average, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. And that’s an undercount because most home tests are not recorded. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine stood at 165 on Friday, up slightly from 150 this time last month.

Case and hospitalization counts aside, the reasons why some establishments are still playing it safe haven’t changed since the early days of the pandemic. They want to protect staff, including some who might have elderly or immunocompromised relatives close by. They don’t want to be the reason a customer gets sick or spreads the virus further. They want to be respectful of people who still have misgivings about venturing out in public places where people might gather in close quarters.

Zara Bohan and her husband, Andy Nesheim, who own Coveside Coffee near Woodfords Corner in Portland, waited a long time before dropping the mask requirement for customers this summer.

But they still strongly recommend them and even offer customers a free disposable mask right at the door. Most put one on, if they aren’t wearing one already. One customer said he didn’t mind putting on a mask.Advertisement

“I’m just in here for five minutes getting a coffee. It’s a pretty painless thing to do,” he said.

And even though masks are optional for patrons, staff members still wear them.

“For us, it’s really kind of a practical consideration,” Bohan said. “We have a small staff, so if a bunch of people get sick all at once, we’d have to close the shop.”

Zara Bohan helps a customer at her business, Coveside Coffee, on Thursday. Masking is strongly recommended for customers at the coffee shop, and the staff is still wearing masks. Rosie Alleva, an employee since the shop opened in May 2021, said that even if wearing a mask wasn’t required she still would choose to wear one. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

At Hilltop Coffee on Munjoy Hill, co-owner Stella Hernandez said masks became optional for customers in the spring, but it was only last week that the requirement was lifted for staff.

“Most of us are still wearing them,” she said. “We’ve been very cautious, but I’d say people are happy about it. I’ve had people pull me aside and say, ‘I’m immunocompromised and I really feel better coming in.’ And we still get people who weren’t wearing a mask when they came in, but they put one on once they see staff wearing them.”

Pinecone + Chickadee, a shop in downtown Portland, still requires masks. There is a sign on the door and a basket of free disposable masks just inside.Advertisement

Material Objects, a vintage retail store on Congress Street, ended its mandate in late spring but held out longer than many businesses.

“Our feeling was, we deal with the public all day long, so we’ve been mindful of that,” co-owner Susan Lakari said.

Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said most businesses around the state have sorted the matter out for themselves now that there are no longer state requirements.

“I certainly understand businesses that have workforce challenges and don’t want to make them any worse,” he said.

At businesses where mask policies remain in place, or where they are recommended, most customers don’t complain.

Lingering mask requirements are more common among performance venues. At Space, a nonprofit arts organization and event space in Portland, visitors still must wear masks, largely in deference to the many artists who are hosted there.

“Space is reevaluating our policy on a monthly basis with our staff using consensus-based decision making and taking into account what our performing artists expect for a safe space for them to perform,” said Kelsey Halliday Johnson, executive director.

The same is true at One Longfellow Square, which hosts concerts and other events.

“Because our venue is so small, starting on August 3, 2022, we will require all staff, volunteers, and patrons to wear masks indoors unless they are actively drinking, eating, or performing,” One Longfellow Square posted on its website. “We will require mask usage as our default policy unless stated otherwise; please refer to the language on each concert’s event page to check the policy for the show you are attending.”

Other places around Portland, including Merrill Auditorium, sometimes require masks depending on the performer or promoter.

The Portland Chamber Musical Festival, which wrapped up its 2022 season this month, required masks for its events. Executive Director Alice Kornhauser said they will reassess for next season.Advertisement

The reasoning this year was layered, she said. The festival’s audience tends to skew older. The rooms where musicians play are smaller. And it’s a show of respect to the musicians, who travel all over to perform.

“Masks do impact their experience performing,” Kornhauser said. “They affect how sound travels to their ears and of course the facial expressions are obscured. So, we’ve generally erred on the side of highest possible performance quality, and respect for the players’ livelihoods.”

Many chamber music festivals were canceled or disrupted this summer, Kornhauser said, so being able to keep Portland’s was a success.

Anthony Erwin wears a mask after finishing his coffee at Coveside Coffee on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Portland Ovations, a nonprofit arts presenter, had been requiring masks at its events through the summer but just updated its policy this week to make them “highly recommended.”

Some theaters are still wrestling with mask requirements, too, largely because those audiences also tend to be older. Most performance spaces have made them optional, but some companies have gotten creative.

Good Theater in Portland, for instance, is making one evening show and one matinee show each week a mask-required show for the 2022-23 season. For all the others, masks are optional.Advertisement

“It seemed like a good compromise,” said Brian Allen, Good Theater’s artistic director. “There is still a percentage of population that just doesn’t feel comfortable. But there is another percentage who are just sick of masks.”

At Mechanics’ Hall in Portland, another event space, masking is optional, but the venue does still reserve the right to ask guests to wear them on certain occasions, Executive Director Annie Leahy said. For instance, if a writer or performer includes masks in a booking request or when a partner organization has a mask policy. The Portland Theater Festival recently hosted a show at Mechanics’ Hall that required attendees to wear face coverings.

Health experts have said since early in the pandemic that masks work best when there is strong compliance. If someone walks into a room with 50 other people and they are all wearing masks, the level of protection is strong. If there are only 10 people wearing masks, even the ones who are masked have less protection.

Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the state ended most mask requirements in May 2021 to align with federal recommendations. Since then, the Maine CDC has continued to follow federal guidelines, which are tied to community risk levels based on virus transmission.

Mask mandates ended this spring on federal public transportation, including planes. Schools and colleges no longer require masks. Most municipal buildings have no requirements, either, although Cape Elizabeth Town Office still does.Advertisement

Still, some businesses and owners see masks as a simple way to make customers feel welcome.

“Our bottom line (is): Please respect and honor individuals and businesses that make the choice to rely on masks as an added measure to protect themselves and their loved ones,” Long said.

For many months of the pandemic, masks became a societal fault line. Some saw them as an easy way to help protect others and a sign that we’re all in this together. Others saw it as an infringement of personal freedoms, even though businesses have for decades asked visitors to behave in certain ways. You can’t walk into a store barefoot, for instance.

Yet even before COVID-19 entered the public consciousness, Asian countries have used masks during flu season to help combat the spread of what can be a serious and deadly disease for vulnerable populations.

It’s unlikely states like Maine would go back to a comprehensive mask mandate unless things change dramatically, but the risk of spread of all respiratory viruses – COVID-19 included – tends to increase in the fall when people spend more time inside.

“In so many ways, businesses weathered this and did their best to comply with the shifting regulations and did what they could to stay open,” Connors said. “And with that experience, they will be well-positioned to adapt again if they need to.”Advertisement

Jeffrey Hotchkiss, who still wears a mask in public, is grateful for places like Coveside Coffee, where he sat outside Thursday morning under an umbrella while heavy rain fell.

“I’m fortunate that I can control where I go and who I interact with for the most part,” he said. “There are a lot of people who just had to go to work without knowing what their exposure might be.”

Bohan, the coffeeshop’s owner, said she and her husband will keep assessing the risk and keep talking to staff.

“We’re constantly assessing,” she said. “We may revisit next week even. But people have been really respectful and understanding.”

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