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Businesses left to decide their own mask policies

The state’s newest mask guidelines leave it largely up to businesses to decide mask-wearing policies in their establishments. The Oregon Health Authority’s guidelines require that those that allow their patrons indoors without masks must request proof of vaccination. However, some business owners may choose to continue requiring masks for all their employees and customers. We speak with Will Cervarich, co-owner of the Betsy and Iya jewelry shop; Kaie Wellman, co-owner of Providore Fine Foods; and Susan Vaslev, co-manager of the Enchanted Forest.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on O P B. I’m Dave Miller. Yesterday we heard Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen explaining the state’s new policies about mask wearing. Basically nobody is required to wear masks in outdoor spaces anymore. For indoor public spaces, though, it is up to each individual business to decide if they will still require masks for everybody, or if they’ll let vaccinated people go unmasked. But those businesses now have to verify the vaccination status of their unmasked customers or staff. The new guidelines which came from the CDC. last week seemed to have caught just about everybody off guard, and they have forced every business owner in the state to quickly come up with their own plans. We’re going to hear now, how three different businesses are dealing with this new reality. We start with Kay Welman, She’s co-owner of Providore Fine Foods. It’s a specialty grocery store in Portland. kaie Wellman, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Wellman: Thank you so much, I’m really happy to be here.

Miller: It’s great to have you on. So, last week, after the CDC came out with their new guidance, What were you expecting from Governor Brown?

Wellman: Well, yeah, it was a shock that the CDC put out that guidance, and I think we, we thought that she would probably follow CDC just because, maybe earlier in the pandemic she hadn’t as quickly. So, I think we were prepared in some way for her guidance to match up with CDC. But it didn’t make it any easier.

Miller: So prepared but not excited about it, Is that a fair way to put it?

Wellman:  Yes that’s a very fair way to put it. Not excited at all because we knew what would be coming our way.

Miller:  Well was it what exactly was coming your way from the perspective of a grocery store?

Wellman:  Well at our grocery store early on in the pandemic, we limited the number of people coming into the store. We did adopt mask wearing from our staff and also from our customers early on.

Miller: Before there was a state mandate to do so?

Wellman: Yes, absolutely, yeah. Before there was a state mandate, We, we just saw the effect of just the unknown and the fear on our staff. And so we just wanted to do as much as we could to protect them both, like physically, mentally, emotionally. So in accordance to you know, this changed back, I think what we felt like is there were going to be people, customers, you know, who potentially would say, you know, they wouldn’t be masked, and we were trying to prepare ourselves for what we would be saying.

Miller: Has that happened, I mean, since last week or since monday, when we actually got more clarity from the state about how exactly this is going to work. Have customers come in unmasked or tried to come in unmasked and said, hey Dr. Fauci says, this is okay?

Wellman: Well, I’m happy to report, actually, that we, I don’t know if we have had anybody, yet who has thrown off the mask and said we’re coming in, it does seem that most people are eager to keep their masks on in a grocery store environment. That’s been a little bit of a surprise to us because we have certainly, like every other grocery store out there, had a fair number of customers, you know, who have battled wearing a mask this entire time. So,  I’m happily surprised to see that most people are keeping their masks on at the moment.

Miller: But, obviously, you have the ability now as a business owner, to let people go unmasked in your store, if you can verify their vaccination status. Will you do that? Will you allow customers to do that?

Wellman: No, we won’t. We, we have seen, and experienced that, that, I mean I guess I’m just going to say, battle with customers in the past, and the toll that it takes on, you know, the staff,  to police in that way has been extraordinary. So we are going to continue to ask people to wear their masks andI guess in the long run, require it, because, we just can’t imagine if we’re gonna begin to check everybody’s vaccination cards, we’re going to have to, we’re going to have to start the lines up again. We just let our line go, because of this, you know, a little bit because of this ruling, we’re just going to open the doors up a little bit more, knowing that every hopefully, that everybody will be masked, and but we don’t want to go backwards and say, OK, everybody line up and now we’re going to check everybody’s cards. It doesn’t seem like the right direction for us as a business to move in right now.

Miller: So if I hear you correctly, so that, that’s one of the kind of logistical, almost a physical bottleneck that you want to prevent. But you started by saying that you don’t want to put your staff, your employees in the position of policing it. What do you imagine? It might be like if your staff were the ones saying, show me your card?

Wellman: Well, it will be usually, I think an angry response. I think that’s what our expectation is based off of what we’ve experienced before or you know, I guess it would be people just, you know, bring in their cards out. But then I think our expectation is that, you know, there will be people and there’s that will use that as an opportunity to say, listen, I don’t have a card, you know, but I have the right  to be waiting outside without a mask on or coming inside. I guess for us, we’re just not thinking that that conversation is something that we want to have and then, you know, inside the business again, I think our staff, still is not a place so quickly, you know, to make this change, having unmasked people, in the store. And I think that’s one of our bigger concerns too, even though we, you know, we believe in the science. We, we, you know, we know that the vaccines are working, but that, that incredibly quick change. There is some level of PTSD that’s going on right now. And, you know, I’m not to say that, you know, a couple of months from now, we might not be there, we might get there, to feel comfortable with having the store full of unmasked people. But right now we don’t.

Miller: And is it fair to say, and I appreciate that the newness of this, and who’s to say what it will feel like emotionally, or look like even a month from now, given that we’re just a couple days into this new part, this new time in the pandemic. But, but do I understand you correctly that what you’re pretty sure you’re never going to want is a kind of bifurcated system where some people can go maskless and some can’t and it’s up to you to actually make that decision. You’d only go maskless when everybody could go massless?

Wellman: Yeah, I think that’s fair to say that. I think that, split system  would, would feel strange to us, and I think it would create a lot of discomfort within the business. We have relatively  small space in the business, and I, I think that it would create a lot of discomfort not only for the employees, but also for other customers. And I think also it’s the sciences, you know, moving quickly with this. I mean, there’s still a lot of questions, you know about variants. You know,

there’s still a lot of questions out there that don’t seem fully answered. And so, at least for our business. I mean, you know, just just continuing to use some caution as we see how this all rolls out makes a lot of sense for us.

Miller: More broadly, moving past the current question of mask policy, are there ways that you think the grocery business in general is going to be changed forever as a result of the pandemic?

Wellman: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean we, we had to change our business very quickly early on. We, you know, we adopted a pickup and delivery service, which is not certainly not the usual for a business of our size and I think that that is certainly something that’s going to stay. You know, we see a lot of the other issues that are going on right now, supply chain issues with the pandemic and I think that you see that from specialty businesses like ours all the way up the line, you know to the big guys, and the supply chain issues are, we don’t expect those to go away anytime soon. And so yes, you know, I often say to my staff, you know that what we’re looking at is a new normal. I mean we’re not going to be able to go back to what was normal.  And I think there’s positive things you know, with the new normal in the future and there’s certainly, I think, a lot more care for how we have our employees facing the public and yeah, I do think it will change.

Miller: Kay  Welman, thanks very much.

Wellman: Thank you.

Miller: Kaie. Wellkan is the co-owner of Providore Fine Foods, a specialty grocery store in Portland. I should note that Providore is an underwriter of OPB. Will Cervarich joins us now. He is a co-owner of Betsy and Iya, a jewelry store in Portland. Will Cervarich. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Cervarich:  Thanks for having me, Dave.

Miller:  your space has both a retail shop where people can buy jewelry and also a production area where people actually make jewelry. How has that physical setup affected the way you’ve thought about Covid 19 precautions for the last 14 months?

Cervarich: It’s made us even more cautious than I would have been if we were just one or the other. The risk for us is that had Covid gotten into our business, it could take down not just our distribution but our supply as well. So a lot of businesses, you know, are just one or the other, but we make our product on site. So yes, we were very cautious about letting the public back into our store lest it hurt our production, our ability to produce and fulfill orders.

Miller: So what does that look like? I mean, what was your approach to Covid safety, before the last week?

Cervarich: We actually built a tent outside of our brick and mortar shops, so we haven’t had customers inside our former retail space since last March. So we were doing sidewalk shopping for a period of time, where folks could point to things through the window and we would help them at the front door, but no one was allowed in.

And then we worked hard to build on that success and bought a large sort of festival tent, added heaters and lights and custom built fixtures and a bunch of stuff to build a massive sort of outdoor shopping market. And then unfortunately the snow and ice storm of february collapsed that tent. So at that point we pivoted and leased additional space in the building that has  a big roll up garage door. Our current brick and mortar space only has just a normal door.

So we’re conducting our retail operations now out of this other space that has a big garage door that we leave open all the time. And if I can say one more thing, we also invested in some UV fans that we’re running both in our production studio and in the pop up retail space to disinfect the air. Okay?

Miller: So given that, what went through your mind when you heard this week definitively from the state that vaccinated people do not have to wear masks in your indoor spaces anymore?

Cervarich:  A lot of the same things that Kaie was saying. I was talking with my retail manager and her husband owns a bike store, and has had a similar approach. He hasn’t had people in the store and had some customers recently asking why can’t I come in, and his response was well we’re thinking through it, but even if we were ready to welcome you in, we’ve still got boxes and stuff sitting in our store because it hasn’t had customers in it for months. And I said, you know, I think that’s such an apt metaphor for all of us. We have, we all have boxes, psychological boxes sitting in, you know, the stores of our minds that we need to work on moving in order to feel comfortable with this new guidance. So my approach, when the guidance was released, some additional anxiety that I didn’t expect. I’m fully vaccinated and most of my staff is and then after,  a bunch of thought and reading  a sort of a wait and see approach that we need some time to sort of process this and just feel comfortable walking past each other outside even.

Miller:  Well, what would happen or maybe what has happened, if somebody wants to come inside your store, today, without a mask?

Cervarich: Our approach and we’re still kind of formalizing and finalizing this, but our current approach is that we’re still displaying our masks required sign, and we’re like,I don’t believe we’ve had a customer come in yet, that has wanted to not wear a mask, but that if a customer came in without a mask, we feel safe, personally, and as a business, as individuals, and as a business we feel safe, given everything I just explained about our physical store. Our one, sort of the thing that we’re monitoring, is the effect of that unmasked person on other customers. So I think, like many business owners,I don’t want my staff to be a mask or a vaccine police. 0But I also don’t want my customers to feel unsafe. So if a mask, if an unmasked customer came in the store today, we would smile underneath our masks and welcome them in and serve them, and keep an eye on the effect that that customer might have on other customers wearing a mask.

Miller: One thing you didn’t mention there in that proposed interaction is saying, hey, do you mind showing me your vaccination card? That’s not something right now that you plan to ask?

Cervarich: That’s correct. Just like Kaie, it’s not something that we’ll do. And I would say, for logistical reasons, of course, but also for the reasons of just complicating the relationship that we want to have with our customers. We want them to feel comfortable and happy and welcomed in our store. And I think that the act of checking a vaccination card just sets that, sets that conversation off on not the right foot for the way that we want to interact with our customers and.

Miller: You feel confident going against this new state rule?

Cervarich: Well, like I said, we’re still going to have a sign up that says masks required. It’s just that we’re also not going to ask our employees to engage in something that may be confrontational or make folks feel uncomfortable at this point in time. Like I said,if we see that not asking for a vaccine card for an unmasked customer is making other customers feel unsafe. We would absolutely look at that policy, and probably at that point, just revert back to asking that customer to put on their mask or shop with us online.

Miller: How much have you, over the last 14, 15 months?, how much have you been talking to your employees, your staff about what they want and what makes them feel comfortable?

Cervarich All the time. You know, I, early on in the pandemic, we, we had probably weekly zoom meetings or video meetings, where we were all talking really personally about how the pandemic was affecting us, that we as a company,

we’ve never cried together more than we did in those early days. Throughout that, I think we’ve built a lot of trust and a lot of great communication as a team. So at this point in time, I’m less in contact with folks on a week to week basis about how, you know, their feelings of safety and  that kind of stuff.  but with this new guidance have initiated conversations with my three managers too. Yeah,

to make sure that we are capturing any anxiety or concerns and addressing it because yeah, the feeling of safety for my staff is number one, feeling and the actual physical act of being safe is number one, for us

Miller: Will Cervarich, thanks so much for joining us today. I appreciate it.

Cervarich: My pleasure. Thank you.

Miller: Will Cervarich is the co-owner of Betsy and Iya, that’s a jewelry store in Portland. If you’re just tuning in, we’ve been hearing how different Oregon businesses are responding to the newly relaxed rules that came out this week from the Oregon health Authority following guidelines that came from the CDC basically in Oregon. Now businesses can let customers and staff go unmasked inside, but only, so say the guidelines, if they check for proof of vaccination. We’re going to hear from one more business owner now, Enchanted Forest. The amusement park south of Salem, announced on Monday that it would reopen this weekend with masks required, for unvaccinated guests and then came a backlash so intense the family announced they are not going to open this weekend after all,Susan Vaslev is the co manager of Enchanted Forest and she joins us once again. Susan, welcome back to Think Out Loud.

Vaslev: Hi there.

Miller: So as I mentioned, you announced on Monday that you were going to reopen this weekend before we get to the drama that followed. How do you decide that this weekend was the time?

Vaslev is: So we had extensive damage from the february 12 ice storm and up to this point it hasn’t been safe for us to allow people in walkways are still damaged. Things like that. And we just got to the point even though all the repairs are not done, that it would have been truly safe to let the public in. And of course we are desperate to open. I think a lot of people know what situation we’re in after Covid and everything. And so we determined this was the weekend. We could do it this weekend. And of course to do that. We need to sell our admissions online. So we had to have our policies up online.

Miller:  And can you describe the policies that you came up with?

Vaslev is: Sure. So we follow the Oregon regulations and so we were monitoring those very closely now, at that second on monday we still did not have everything from the governor. So we were operating under the current guidelines which for us we’re totally masked. Everybody needed to be masked. Except on Thursday, the Governor made the statement that the new guidelines would allow people to go massless if they provided their vaccination cards and you could check that. And the Oregon epidemiologist also made that statement, so we were pretty sure it was going in that direction and you know, we’re trying to make decisions on Monday for what would be happening Saturday. And we figured if it loosened up more, we could adjust. But, so we put it up that masks were required. But if you chose to show us your vaccination card upon entry, that you could get an exception to that.

Miller: As we’ve just been hearing, you ended up and you guessed right, it wasn’t, it was a very educated guess, based on what we’ve been hearing from the governor and other state officials before, you know, the fuller announcement this week. But you, you anticipated what they came out with, which was that you can go maskless inside if you, if you show proof of vaccination. As we just heard from a jewelry shop owner and a grocery store owner, they didn’t want to be in the business of having to check vaccination status. How did you make the opposite decision? You could have just said, everybody has to wear masks. We don’t want to look at cards. But you said, no, we don’t mind doing that. What was your thinking?

Vaslev is: Well, our thinking was that this was a step in moving forward and moving out of Covid and we were actually very excited about it and we are so used to in this park, enforcing rules, you know, if your child is too short to ride on the ride, if we’re,like, during Covid, we had three hour increments, and you had to be out of the park at a certain time. We’re used to all of that. And it didn’t, I didn’t foresee this. I thought that was just a very easy thing for us to do. We weren’t asking for it. You simply have to provide it to get the, you know, you would come to us at the entrance. And so I obviously did not see what was coming.

Miller: Actually, we haven’t talked specifically about what did come. So now you can tell us what was the reaction from people on facebook or other social media after you made this announcement.

Vaslev is: So what happened? We posted Monday night, just before I’m going to bed. I just glanced at Facebook and the comments are very positive. You know,  we support you. We think these are very clear guidelines. We think this is great. And then I started to see all of the really hate, anger. One’s about this. And we stayed awake during the night watching this happen. And they were angry about two things. The people who were angry, one, the checking of the vaccine card and to any mass at all. And it was very obvious to me also, that people had no idea what the actual Oregon rules were. So, people were thinking that we were pulling these rules out of a hat and just making them up ourselves. And there was a certain portion that I do believe knew the rules, but we’re angry that we weren’t, ignoring them, that we weren’t standing up and saying everybody could come in maskless.

Miller:You’ve said that you got threats to, can you give us a sense for how serious this got?

Vaslev is: Okay. So, it isn’t just Facebook and all the other online media. What happened is we started receiving phone calls, emails and we have decided not to be specific about those threats, but I think people know our situation, know how desperate we were to open. And we were so excited to open and to know that we made the call not to open. We have to think of our employees’ safety. We have to think of the safety of the guests in our park. And that was definitely in question with the threats we were getting.

Miller: In other words, we can as listeners, without hearing the specifics, we can judge the seriousness of what you received based on your decision because you desperately want to open up. But what you got was serious enough that you felt you had no choice but to not open, definitely. Yeah. What would you like to see from the state? I mean, you, in a sense, you have been following state guidelines even before, you know exactly what they were going to be, but you ended up doing that. Do you think that there’s anything that you could get from the governor or OHA, or you know, or at the county level that could have actually made this better for you?

Vaslev is: Absolutely. There are two things for me,  one, they put out the guidelines, and I thought they were very clear about what was going to happen. The only thing we weren’t sure about was whether they were going to lift the mask outside and they did, and we of course will follow that.  But there is no guidance for handling the guest or group of people who is coming to your establishment to make a point and is threatening, in your face, belligerent and will not leave. It’s not a matter of just saying, can you please put your mask on? You know, when you really have a confrontation, what does the governor want us to do? And the second part of that?

Miller:I wonder is that the kind of thing where there needs to be Covid specific guidance, or I mean, is that kind of behavior where there are already criminal statutes for trespassing or I mean, you have the ability as a business owner to refuse people service. As long as they don’t fall into some kind of protected category. And refusing to wear a mask is not a protected category.

Vaslev isThat is correct. But I think it’s, it’s just like your other guests have said it is not quite so simple. You know,

We’ve, we want good relationships with our guests. We also want to not put the other people in our park in this agitated state. Um, and it’s not quite so simple as calling the police. It’s a very difficult decision. And, of course, because of this, we have decided we are also not going to do this. It will simply be mass inside, no mass outside, because we can see that that this is, there is already the problem of mass inside period.

[00:28:28.119]

There is a certain, um, there is a certain, there’s an amount of people that are already going to be angry about that. And to add this other element, to it, it is too much to expect our employees to be dealing with even our managers even. It’s just, it’s stepping too far until it’s, if it was an accepted practice all over the place. That’s another thing.

[00:29:01.890]

But I do not think the public, a lot of the public is really educated about the choices and options to businesses. So they think you are just doing something that is evil, and they think they are justified in their threats and harassment and

Miller: How much longer can you afford to be closed?

Vaslev is: Oh, everyday kills us everyday kills us. So because we were already, as you know, we were a thriving business before Covid, no debt. And then with everything that happened to us during Covid,

[00:29:36.920]

we are in great debt. It’s really a very tenuous situation right now. So we are hanging by a thread. So this is very serious for us. But the safety of our guests and our employees is far more important. So you weigh it out and we cannot be open at this time. We will wait for there to become a norm and for us to be sure that people will be safe in our park.

Miller: Susan Vassilev thanks very much for joining us once again and best of luck to you.

Vaslev is: Thank you so much.

Miller: That’s Susan Vassilev, co manager of Enchanted Forest.

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