It was after a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at a nursing home in North Canaan this past fall that local hardware store owner Bob Riva said he and his staff started wearing masks again at work. But he was hesitant to require that his customers do the same.
One of Riva’s clerks wanted to put up a sign. “I said, ‘Sure, you can, but we have to be very cautious. Say please.’”
The clientele at 130-year-old C.A. Lindell Hardware & Lumber reflect the demographics of the community — many are elderly — and Riva said he’s cognizant of their health. At the height of the pandemic over a year ago, the store had a mask mandate in place, but some younger customers pushed back. Riva recalls people swearing at him and threatening to call the police.
This time around, he said, “I didn’t feel as though I wanted to go through the arguments with customers … I’m so past that. It’s worn me out, maybe.”
As COVID-19 cases surge across the state amid the spread of the omicron variant and the waning of vaccine effectiveness, enforcing safety measures like mask-wearing and social distancing is falling to private businesses. There are no statewide mandates, and imposing local ones has been challenging — most cities and towns have relied largely on good will and individual courtesy. As a result, public-facing retail shops and restaurants have borne the brunt of public pushback.
“It puts businesses in the position of having to be the mask cops,” said Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council Of Small Towns. “By and large, towns are finding that most people are complying with the requirements of local businesses to wear masks. Unfortunately, there’s a small segment of the population that just refuses to do so, and that just makes it much more difficult.”
It didn’t help that the onset of the latest variant coincided with the 2021 holiday shopping season, which was significantly busier than 2020. Weekly foot traffic in U.S. retail stores in December was up between 14% and 20% compared to the same weeks the prior year, according to research firm Sensormatic Solutions. Family gatherings and air travel, which were also more common this holiday season, have likely aided the virus’ spread.
The range of rules and enforcement, from one business to the next, varies almost as widely as the range of regulations across Connecticut towns and cities. Some jurisdictions have reinstated public health measures after doing away with them months ago. Others have stayed the course. Even in places that reestablished mask mandates, there are few to no consequences for failing to comply (New Haven is one exception).
As a result, mask wearing is unpredictable from town to town, inconsistent even from one storefront to the next, among customers and employees alike.
“That’s one thing we’ve heard from front-facing businesses, that it would be nice to have consistency,” said Chris DiPentima, president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. The best way to do that, he said, is for companies to establish their own policies and stick to them. “Businesses have just taken it into their own hands,” he said. “Most prefer there would not be [mandates]. Most prefer to control it within their own business.”
But the latest spike in COVID positivity — nearly one in four tests as of Tuesday — is raising anxiety levels, DiPentima said. “I think it is escalating a bit, as far as the sensitivity of it, because the customers themselves are getting frustrated or tired of mask-wearing.”
For his part, Riva said he might feel more comfortable standing up to customers if he knew there were official policies to back him up.
“I always felt like we were out here on an island by ourselves,” he said.
The governor’s guidance
According to the state’s guidance, all people — vaccinated or not — must wear masks in schools, health facilities, group housing, public transit and “when asked in public or private.” The guidance suggests that people who are unvaccinated be required to wear a mask indoors, while those who have received the full vaccine dosage may opt not to wear a mask.
But since the pandemic’s early days, when everything shut down, the state has left specific rules and enforcement in the hands of local leaders, said Max Reiss, spokesman for Gov. Ned Lamont.
“Whether it was the health department, local law enforcement or local government, that was where the rubber met the road,” and that has continued to be the case, Reiss said. “We have allowed cities and towns to put in a mask mandate. If they put one in, it’s on them to enforce it. It just wouldn’t be possible to send out the state police to be the enforcers on that.”
But Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said in the midst of the virus’ latest surge, many municipal leaders feel that “this is the type of time where a collective effort needs to be in place, and there needs to be leadership from above as opposed to everyone being left to figure it out on their own.”
In a state like Connecticut, with so many towns, cities and small communities, he said, “There are probably very few areas where people spend their entire day — live, work, play — in just one town.” DeLong added, “It’s not in the best collective interest for there to be this smorgasbord of different requirements from one town to the next.”
Reiss said the governor isn’t interested in new statewide mask or vaccine mandates. Rather, Lamont’s focus is on getting people vaccinated and making high-quality masks and testing as widely available as possible, Reiss said.
“The vaccine continues to be the best protection against COVID,” he said. “We continue to have an open dialogue with businesses, with restaurants. We continue to encourage them to get their people vaccinated.”
Some critics have questioned that approach. “I think the mistake that we made was to put all of our eggs into that vaccine basket — almost to the exclusion of other things,” writer Ed Yong said recently on a podcast hosted by former presidential advisor on the COVID response, Andy Slavitt. “We really thought the vaccines were so effective that they could act as a single layer … Because of that we began letting our guard down and stripping some of the others away. Masks, most notably.”
‘Everything is political’
At Bistro V in Greenwich, manager Nolvin Ventura said staff are wearing masks, getting tested and logging their temperatures regularly — all of which has thus far prevented the latest outbreak from hitting his restaurant. Greenwich has a mask mandate only in the town’s buildings and facilities. And local restaurants were recently ordered to remove outdoor seating “nodes” in street parking areas. That means all customers now come inside, Ventura said, and they don’t all follow the indoor rules.
“It’s really hard,” he said. “My staff and I are in a really tough position because as soon as we say to the customer, ‘Please, can you wear a mask?’ they start getting aggravated, yelling at us, screaming at us, they create a big problem.” If it were staff members who weren’t following the rules, Ventura said he could dock their pay or hours as punishment. But when it’s the customers, he has to be more careful. “Everything is political, which I don’t like,” he said. “It wasn’t like that before.”
The question of whether and how to enforce mask rules is sensitive for many shop and restaurant owners, in part because it’s perceived as a political issue. Several small businesses declined to comment for this story. One clerk at a convenience store in Eastford said, “It’s just not worth getting into.”
DiPentima said every business is unique and will have to make its own decisions. But if association members ask him what they should do, DiPentima offers his own office policies as an example. CBIA instated a mask mandate at its offices before Christmas, which is still in place, and it is encouraging employees to work remotely if possible.
DeLong said he’s aware of problems with some national chain businesses not enforcing any rules. But for local proprietors who are trying to follow public health guidance, he said municipal leaders have an obligation to provide support.
“Any time a business is dealing with disruptive or unruly behavior, whether it has to do with COVID or anything else — it could be somebody who isn’t 21 being unruly because they want to be served alcohol — those tools aren’t any different in this case than in any others,” he said. “You would need to reach out to local law enforcement to have those things dealt with appropriately,” he said.
Still, Gara of COST pointed out, “Most small towns simply do not have the resources to enforce a town-wide mask mandate.” Instead, she said, “Most towns are taking the approach that they will provide education and information to individuals about the importance of wearing masks, but they stop short of issuing fines or taking other measures to enforce a mandate.”