Local businesses are facing tough times as a result of the COVID pandemic. Restaurants, bars, gyms, retailers, salons, hardware stores, ranch suppliers – you name it, everyone is being affected. In addition to social distance requirements, merchants now must also comply with mask mandates. For many it has not been easy and in the back of everyone's mind is the possibility of another complete shutdown. The consequences resulting from policies intended to keep us from getting sick are killing local business and stand to cost people their jobs.
Big R started requiring masks to be worn as soon as the mandate was issued, but that didn’t keep OSHA from their doorstep. Big R received an unannounced inspection by OSHA last week and according to assistant manager Cody Woods, they could face a penalty of at least $10,000 per unmasked employee or customer. Fines could also be issued if an individual’s mask is not completely covering both the nose and mouth. “We were also told that customers with medical conditions don’t have to wear masks." They were also told that homeless customers were exempt from the requirement. “Are we supposed to ask if they are homeless" asked Woods, "and couldn't that be considered demeaning to some?" OSHA provided no further information on the exemption.
Like most other businesses in town, the mask ordinance is taking a financial toll on Big R. “If a customer refuses to wear a mask, they aren’t allowed to come in,” Woods stated, "and some customers simply won’t shop here right now." Keeping staff onboard is of foremost concern, but they also have an essential business to keep open. “Going forward, if we don’t have the business, we can’t have the people," Woods admitted.
Frontier Liquor and Sporting Goods recently received a letter from OSHA advising them that they had been reported for non-compliance. Owner Kevin Weishaupt explained that he had not required employees or customers to wear masks prior to OHSA's notice. He was required to investigate the complaint internally and reply or be fined. “We’ve moved to a different country,” Weishaupt stated, “this is communism.” One of his primary concerns is safety, specifically how dangerous it is for someone to carrying a concealed firearm to be wearing a mask – a common occurrence in any store selling firearms.
Although OSHA’s letter stated “this is not a citation or notification of proposed penalty,” Weishaupt risked more action by OSHA if he failed to comply with what the letter referred to as “The Act”. However, no specific act or legislation was cited in the text. He now has some customers leave when they see the mask requirement at the door. “I’m frustrated,” Weishaupt said. “I think if you are that worried or have an underlying condition, it is your responsibility to stay home and not enter the store.”
According to Misty Mulholland, general manager of Fitness for Ten, traffic has been drastically reduced now that masks are required in fitness centers. While masks don’t have to be worn during “vigorous exercise” they must be worn between machines and throughout the gym. This has not been easy to enforce, but they haven’t had a choice. “We are a small family-owned business,” explained Mulholland, “and we can’t afford the fines.”
During the early days of the mask mandate, Mulholland had to post a message on social media asking members not to take their irritation out on the staff. Unfortunately, employees are tasked with having to police members and remind them to put or keep their masks on. “For the most part, everyone is really good now,” Mulholland explained, but frustrations are running high for all concerned.
Several members have canceled their memberships and many are simply not coming back in until the mandate is lifted. Another upsetting possibility for Fitness for Ten is also staff cutbacks, according to Mulholland. While they are managing to stay open for now, a future shut down would put most likely result in reductions in force.
Anna’s Café is also struggling under the weight of the mandate. Not only is the requirement for staff to wear masks challenging, but they are also supposed to police patrons entering and exiting the premise. Owner Ana Hardy expressed her frustrations, explaining that some of her employees have heat rashes, cooks are struggling to work in masks over hot cooktops, and waitresses struggle when the pace is vigorous. But the frustration doesn’t stop there. “How are we supposed to deal with things like upset customers?" asks Hardy. “We don’t even know exactly what the mandate requires. How can they fine me when they haven’t properly trained me?”
Social distancing isn’t helping make up for lost business either. Ana’s sales are down from having to keep tables six feet apart and serving at half capacity. Despite the setback, she remains grateful. “I’m glad we made it this far,” says Hardy, “I have really wonderful customers – some come in buy a meal when they aren’t hungry, others come every day without fail, and I’ve even had donations just to help keep us open.” Hardy has yet to cut back on staff, but with no sign of the restrictions being lifted, it may be something she will have to consider down the road.
In some places, this kind of bad-to-worse scenario is phrased as being struck by lightning while being bit by a snake. Most local merchants would not disagree.
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