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Regional Interests

Businesses see risks in maskless policies for vaccinated customers

Pre-pandemic days at Enchanted Forest. The iconic amusement park is holding off reopening after receiving threats over its plan to screen customers for vaccination status.
Pre-pandemic days at Enchanted Forest. The iconic amusement park is holding off reopening after receiving threats over its plan to screen customers for vaccination status.

A grocery storekeeper who will keep requiring masks in the store, rather than check vaccination cards.

A jewelry store owner who’ll keep a “masks required” poster up, but won’t confront customers who uncover their faces.

And an amusement park manager who “desperately” wants to open, but won’t because of threats from people who oppose any mask rules.

OPB’s Think Out Loud spoke to proprietors of Providore Fine Foods, a Northeast Portland specialty food store; Betsy and Iya, a jewelry shop in Northwest Portland; and Enchanted Forest, an iconic amusement park on Interstate 5 south of Salem.

New guidance, issued this week by the Oregon Health Authority, attempted to clarify rules regarding the wearing of masks as more Oregonians are getting vaccinated, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have relaxed COVID-19 protections. But the state guidance puts businesses in a position of potentially checking customers’ vaccination cards and asking certain people to wear masks while allowing others to go without. The result is a mix of approaches, depending on the business.

Nowhere was the decision as agonizing as it was at Enchanted Forest, a family-oriented theme park that’s been closed for months by pandemic health concerns and damage suffered during last winter’s storms.

“We’re desperate to open,” park co-manager Susan Vaslev told Think Out Loud.

Enchanted Forest planned to open this coming weekend with ticket sales starting Monday. Vaslev says the park had made enough repairs to be ready for customers, and they felt comfortable checking vaccination cards because park staff has always had to deal with rules.

“We are so used to, in this park, enforcing rules if your child is too short to ride on a ride. During COVID we had three-hour increments to be out of the park — we’re used to this,” Vaslev said.

But Vaslev quickly learned that checking vaccination customers’ cards meant stepping into a controversy around masks and vaccines that she wasn’t expecting.

Vaslev said she stayed up Monday night, after Enchanted Forest had posted their guidelines and saw the response on social media turn from support to “hate” and “anger.” She said they got threats that were frightening enough that they felt they couldn’t open this weekend.

“To know that, we made the call not to open. We have to think of our employees’ safety and the safety of our guests in our park, and that was definitely in question with the threats we were getting,” Vaslev said.

Vaslev said she wasn’t sure how long Enchanted Forest would stay closed, conceding that “Every day, it kills us.”

But Vaslev said the safety of guests and employees is even more important, forcing them to stay closed for the time being.

At Providore Fine Foods, co-owner Kaie Wellman said she was expecting new rules even before Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s announcement last week. And Wellman said she was preparing for potential conflicts that might come with the change in state guidance.

“[We’re] not excited at all — because we knew what would be coming our way,” Wellman told Think Out Loud.

Wellman said in the early days of the pandemic, her store required masks before it was mandated by the state. She said some customers chafed at the store policy, but over time people got used to it.

“We have seen and experienced that — I’m going to say ‘battle’ — with customers in the past, and the toll it takes on staff to police in that way has been extraordinary,” Wellman said. “We’re going to continue to ask people to wear their masks, and I guess in the long run, require it.”

Wellman also said she didn’t feel comfortable with a split system, where some customers would be required to wear masks and others wouldn’t have to.

The Northwest Portland jewelry store, Betsy and Iya, is taking a slightly different path: expecting compliance with a mask mandate but not enforcing it should people take them off.

“I think like many business owners, I don’t want my staff to be the mask or vaccine police, but I also don’t want our customers to feel uncomfortable,” said Will Cervarich, Betsy and Iya co-owner.

So for now, Cervarich said he’s taking a wait-and-see approach.

“So if an unmasked customer came in the store, we’d smile underneath our own masks and welcome them in and serve them, and keep an eye on what effect that person has on other customers who are wearing masks,” Cervarich said.

State health officials are expecting businesses to check vaccination status for customers who are indoors without masks on. But Cervarich says it’s not worth potentially alienating customers with a confrontation.

“It’s not something that we’ll do,” Cervarich said, suggesting doing so would “complicate the relationship we want to have with our customers.”

The state is requiring businesses to check people’s vaccination status in order to allow them to go without a face covering. And Cervarich says at this store, at least for now, he’s trying to balance the comfort and safety of different customers.

“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,” Cervarich said. “And probably at that point, revert to have that person put on their mask or shop with us online.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting