2021 | Coronavirus

With mask mandate lifted, businesses on their own to decide how to proceed

Private establishments may continue to require mask use

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Now with the county's mask mandate lifted, businesses can now decide whether or not to require masks.

File photo

On Thursday afternoon, a frequent customer of Woodcraft of Rockville, a woodworking supply store, walked past a sign asking him to wear a mask to keep fellow customers and employees safe.

Amy Bender, a co-owner and retail manager of Woodcraft, said the customer doesn’t wear a mask, but spends a considerable amount of money at her business.

Business owners like Bender are making choices about their rules or expectations for customers, now that they have that discretion.

With Montgomery County fully reopened and its mask mandate lifted, businesses now must decide whether to require them — possibly leading to varying policies depending on business owners’ decisions. 

For now, Bender is keeping mask use a requirement until all of her staff is fully vaccinated.

Bender isn’t worried about how much business she might gain or lose, given that she has a niche store. But it’s tough to enforce a mask policy that covers both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, she added.

“There are no vaccine passports, and how do you police ‘if you’re vaccinated, please feel free to leave your mask at home’?” Bender said. “It’s difficult because if somebody isn’t vaccinated, it’s obvious if they are wearing a mask, but it’s not if they don’t.”

Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, told reporters at a news conference Wednesday there will be an “ebb and flow” to whether certain private businesses will require masks or not. 

Stoddard added that it’s important for residents to respect one another if they choose to wear masks in stores that don’t require them.

“In Montgomery County, we have a lot of people who are going to wear face coverings for at least the foreseeable future because it’s a choice,” Stoddard said. “People should not feel like they have to sit at home and do nothing. They could feel comfortable reaping the benefits … that everyone in the community has put in a lot of effort to get where we are at right now.”

Tracy Callahan, the owner of Bethesda Florist, said his employees aren’t wearing masks and customers may come in maskless if they are vaccinated. But it’s the honor system, as the shop isn’t requiring proof, he added. 

His business has done well during the pandemic as people have sent flowers to friends and family to keep their spirits up, Callahan said.

“I believe that 99 percent of the people are good and taking this seriously and treating this the right way,” he said. “We have a lady who comes in weekly who is fully vaccinated, but she’s elderly and she still chooses to wear a mask. And that’s good by me.”

Johnson Lee, owner of Joe’s Record Paradise in Silver Spring, has taken a hardline approach: masks are required when entering his record store.

Part of the reasoning, Lee said, is that the larger office building he’s in still requires it. But he also believes the pandemic is not over and there’s a need to stay careful.

Protecting his employees is a high priority, Lee said. He’s not worried if that scares off business, he said, because he already has a loyal following.

“We’ve been in business almost 50 years,” Lee said. “Wherever we go, people follow. … People come to dig [for records]. They come from other states, other countries.”

One central issue businesses face is how strict they want to be when enforcing a mask policy.

Ken Shortall, a manager at Strosniders Hardware in Bethesda, said the store asks that patrons wear masks, but will not strictly enforce that policy. 

Verelyn Gibbs Watson, owner of Nothing Bundt Cakes in Bethesda, is trying to enforce a mask policy more closely. Her employees will all wear masks and they ask customers to do so, as well.

If customers don’t have a mask, they can do curbside pickup, Watson said. Or the shop will offer masks to those who enter the bakery.

Keeping her employees safe is a priority, she said.

“It seems as though if we didn’t have the mask mandate that we would be contributing to an unsafe situation for some of our guests, and to us, that’s unacceptable,” Watson said. 

Allie Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce, said county residents should respect whatever decisions businesses make for a mask policy. 

He believes those in the health care sector — which is still required to enforce mask wearing, per state law — will enforce mask use the most. No other sectors specifically seem to be as vigilant, he added.

Williams said he understands that some customers might not patronize businesses that require masks. But he hopes those customers realize businesses have the right to operate their establishments as they see fit.

It ultimately comes down to human behavior and understanding, Williams said. People get their information and news from a variety of community listservs and news sources, possibly giving them a range of views on whether masks should be worn in certain areas.

What people read and hear can influence what they do, Williams said.

“The court of public opinion is very strong, and sometimes you read 10 things and those that are louder are heard more,” he said.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com