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Lifting The Statewide Mask Mandate Could Leave Businesses In A Tough Place … Again

A photo of a sign requiring masks at the entrance of a store.
Margarita-Young/Getty Images
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Gov. Spencer Cox has signaled he’ll sign a bill that would end Utah’s statewide mask mandate April 10.

Masks have been a source of contention in Utah and across the country throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

They’re widely viewed by public health experts as one of the simplest measures for preventing the spread of the virus. But they’ve also become symbols of people’s political leanings, and representative for some of government overreach.

Whether to require or enforce mask wearing has been a minefield for small business owners and their employees, who are often the ones forced to step in when people don’t comply.

When former Gov. Gary Herbert issued a statewide mask mandate last November, it took some of the pressure off of small business owners like Marshall Meier. He owns Meier’s Meats and Fine Foods in Highland. But now the mandate could be lifted as soon as April 10, though it “may remain in effect” for gatherings of 50 or more people and in situations where people cannot stay at least six feet apart.

Meier said prior to the mandate, he did not require customers to wear masks. Most would anyway, as did he and his staff, but he asked his employees not to confront people who came in without one.

He said the statewide mandate helped, as more people came in wearing masks. But for the handful of people who continued to refuse, Meier said he still let them be.

“You just don't you don't know what somebody is going to do,” Meier said. “It was such a heated thing at one point that somebody could get hurt. We weren't going to put our employees in that situation.”

If the mandate is lifted, he said he’ll likely take away the signs asking people to wear masks and will no longer hand out free masks to customers — an expense he said has been adding up. But he isn’t sure yet if he’ll still require his employees to wear them. He’ll likely take his cues from the grocery co-operative he belongs to, Associated Food Stores, which is advising stores not to lift mask requirements until employees are vaccinated.

Andy Nettell, owner of Back of Beyond Books in Moab, said he and his employees have been vigilant about public health measures throughout the pandemic, not only requiring masks, but limiting the number of customers into the shop and requiring them to sanitize their hands before entering.

Grand County had issued a mask mandate prior to the state’s order, which meant the decision to require masks was out of his hands.

Nettell said that’s been helpful to him as a business owner, and is one thing he wished would’ve come earlier in the pandemic from state leaders. Leaving decisions up to local government and individual businesses created chaos, he said, and placed the burden largely on employees to enforce the rules.

“People come to Moab from all over the country and with different mandates everywhere, no one knew what to expect,” he said. “It became, especially in the beginning, very difficult to expect customers to follow any guidelines when they weren't sure what they were.”

Now that the mandate could be lifted, he said that’ll be a step in the wrong direction.

While he will still be protected by Grand County’s mandate, expected to last through June, he said the absence of a statewide order could spark even more debate this time around.

Nettell said customers may feel like the pandemic is winding down and are eager to get back to normal, yet health experts stress social distancing and mask wearing are still needed to keep COVID-19 variants from creating new surges.

Even if the county were to lift its mandate earlier, he said he’d still ask his employees and customers to continue wearing masks until everyone on the staff was fully vaccinated.

Whatever happens, Meier said he can’t wait for the pandemic to finally be over.

“We've tried to be really cautious,” he said. “We've got sanitizers all over. We've had little machines on our check stands that supposedly filter the air and help kill bacteria. So I don't know. It's been a long road. But I'm ready for these masks to come off.”

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