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Small Businesses Say Masks Policies Cause Big Headaches

A photo of a doorway with mask required signs in front of it.
Ross Terrell
As mask wearing has become a political issue, how a business chooses to deal with it can influence whether customers wants to support it.

Social distancing and mask policies are now part of daily operations for businesses across Utah. But that puts some companies in a tough spot, either having to confront customers who don’t comply or risk making others feel unsafe.

For many small businesses already struggling through the pandemic, it’s an added burden that could affect their bottom line.

It’s been a particular headache for Gregg Neel, owner of the Gold Ore Store, a precious metals dealer in St. George.

He said early on in the pandemic, he was pretty adamant that customers shouldn’t have a mask on in the store. But that was mostly because he found people were more likely to try and steal if they had one on.

Neel said it happens almost every day and almost all of them wear masks.

“They know it and they're using it as a tool,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that those of us that sell small items that can be stolen, people are totally taking advantage of this whole process and doing it anonymously with that mask.”

But eventually he said he had to relent on the anti-mask stance, because the store started getting negative reviews online from people complaining about it — and that can be damaging for a small business.

“It’s like a knife in the back,” he said. “It takes about 100 positive [reviews] to clean up one negative.“

On the flip side, the store has also received positive reviews from people who appreciate not being told they have to wear a mask.

The situation is part of a larger trend happening in the business world, according to Paul Godfrey, a professor of business strategy at Brigham Young University who researches corporate social responsibility.

He said that over the last 20 years, customers have begun to care more about what a company stands for — where they once just sought out the cheapest products — and now go out of their way to support businesses they consider socially responsible.

“There are so many potential landmines today — social landmines — that didn't exist before,” Godfrey said. “You have to be aware that people identify with their own values and they're going to patronize or work for companies that have similar values than they do.”

And as customer attitudes have shifted, Godfrey said companies have in turn become more willing to publicize their positions on social issues, even if unrelated to their businesses, whether it’s the #MeToo movement, racial justice or the environment.

Godfrey said mask policies are now part of that shift, and what a business chooses to do can affect how their customers view them.

“The problem is that mask wearing became politicized and it became much more than wearing a mask,” he said. “The larger question for a business is how political do we want to be? Because there are tremendous payoffs that could happen, but there's also a lot of risk.”

Small business owner Andy Nettell said his stance may have lost him some business from those who don’t like wearing masks, but it’s also given him more support from others who appreciate the precautions.

He runs the Back of Beyond Book store in Moab, which not only requires every customer to have a mask on, they also have to sanitize their hands before they can enter the store.

“I would never want to turn away a customer,” Nettell said. “And yet if we can't safely work with customers, then I don't mind them turning away. And yes, that certainly negatively affects our bottom line. But right now, that's fine.”

He said he’s only had a few issues with people not complying, while those who don’t agree with the store’s policy most likely don’t enter in the first place.

He said it probably also helps that he has a different clientele than other businesses in the area, almost 80% of whom are tourists.

“We’re a bookstore, after all,” he said. “We're bastions of liberal thinking. But at the same time, we sell all types of books to all types of people. And I want to continue doing that.”

Whatever a business’s position on the issue, Paul Godfrey said it should be viewed as an opportunity, yet another way a company can and should distinguish itself by showing what it stands for and cares about.

“It’s just part of the rules of the road now,” he said. “This month, it's masks and COVID-19. A year from now, it will be something else. Because in an internet world, one disgruntled customer can cause a lot of harm, so you have to be a lot more intentional about how you're going to deal with these issues.”

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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