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As Mask Mandates Disappear, Business Owners Make And Enforce Their Own Rules

Some businesses, including Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, are still requiring customers to wear masks indoors, despite new guidance from the CDC that it's safe for fully vaccinated people to go without them.
Some businesses, including Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, are still requiring customers to wear masks indoors, despite new guidance from the CDC that it's safe for fully vaccinated people to go without them.

On the sidewalk outside Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams in Alexandria, Va., Rhea and Mark Woodcock wait for their turn to go inside for their weekly ice cream treat — a scoop of Texas Sheet Cake for her, a scoop of Gooey Butter Cake for him.

The Woodcocks are vaccinated, and they're also wearing masks, abiding by the MASKS MANDATORY signs plastered all over the doors.

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abruptly changed its guidance to say it is now safe for fully vaccinated people to stop wearing masks even indoors, a number of state and local governments, including Virginia and the city of Alexandria, lifted or amended their mask mandates. That's left businesses like Jeni's to make and enforce their own rules.

Businesses have spent the past few days navigating confusion.

Jeni's said it is keeping its mask policies in place for now. Employees and customers are required to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. In Alexandria on Sunday, no one seemed to be questioning that policy.

"If, to get ice cream, I have to wear a mask, I will do that," said Rhea Woodcock. "But all the other [masks], I'm having a burning party when we can."

Some of the biggest retailers in America are going the other direction. Target, Walmart and Costco have all dropped their mask rules for fully vaccinated people, except where state or local laws apply.

"Face coverings will continue to be strongly recommended for guests and team members who are not fully vaccinated," Target said in a statement.

The U.S. has no vaccine passport system, so compliance with the new rules falls to an honor system. Walmart said workers simply have to answer a vaccination question on a daily health assessment to be eligible to go maskless. Its fully vaccinated employees no longer have to wear masks.

"Integrity is one of our core values, and we trust that associates will respect that principle when answering," Walmart executives wrote in a memo to staff.

Small businesses that were able to ask customers to mask up by pointing to state or local laws are now entering new territory.

"My fear is that people will say they're vaccinated when they're not vaccinated and then just walk around unmasked," said Nicole McGrew, owner of the clothing and accessories boutique Threadleaf in Old Town Alexandria.

McGrew and her two employees are fully vaccinated, but she has an 11-year-old son who's too young to get the vaccine. In the store, she still wears a mask and will continue to require that of her customers for at least a short time longer, she said. She does not look forward to the day a customer asks why another customer is unmasked, given it's impossible to know for certain who has been vaccinated.

"You truly are just taking people at their word and having to navigate people's comfort levels," she said. "That will be trickier."

In Fayetteville, Ark., Richard McGinnis and his staff at Richard's Country Meat Market have had some difficult conversations already. At the end of March, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson lifted the state's mask mandate, leaving some customers unhappy that Fayetteville still has one in place. The Fayetteville City Council may vote to lift the mandate in a couple of weeks. McGinnis is looking forward to the change, saying it'll be one less headache.

"I want everybody happy when they're coming in," he said.

McGinnis is skeptical of the idea that lifting mask mandates will encourage vaccine holdouts to get the shot. "If they're not going to, they're not going to," he said. "There's vaccines sitting on the shelves. They could have one this afternoon if they want one."

Still, he's not worried about unvaccinated people coming into the store. He and his employees are all fully vaccinated and therefore, according to the CDC, protected. He welcomed last week's change in CDC guidance as it finally made clear why vaccinations are important. If you still had to wear a mask after getting vaccinated, he'd wondered, what was the point?

With the mask wars appearing to be on their way out, McGinnis is turning his attention to a more pressing issue: Business at his market was great in the pandemic because restaurants were closed. But how do you keep customers cooking at home now that they can eat out again?

"We're doing everything in our power to keep that business," he said, including making curbside service permanent.

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Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.