As COVID-19 cases began to fall after the winter Omicron variant surge, governors across the country are beginning to ditch mask and vaccine mandates — presenting a conundrum for business owners who aren’t entirely certain if they want to follow suit.
Places like Florida and Texas have long abandoned indoor masking requirements, but major coastal cities are finally rolling back COVID-related restrictions. Monday will mark the official end of New York City’s vaccine passport system, with the Big Apple already having loosened mask mandates.
In California, Los Angeles County will no longer require masks for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people in most indoor places – a key milestone for the Golden State. The change aligns L.A. County with California state rules, which on Tuesday stopped mandating indoor masking for unvaccinated people.
Yet with memories of previous COVID waves still fresh in their minds, some small and medium-sized businesses are nervous that officials could be moving too quickly. Seesawing numbers over the last two years have seen mandates wax and wane.
“I’m gonna have to really think hard about whether I still continue to have the mask [mandate]. I’m not sure to tell you the truth,” Ruby Bugarin, co-owner of Margaritas and Pepe’s Mexican Restaurants, in Southern California, told Yahoo Finance in a phone interview.
Bugarin hasn’t “made it mandatory” for her workers to be vaccinated but so far “close to 95%” of her staff are. Yet she’s still deciding on the mask requirement at her two restaurants.
“Maybe I’ll have the [front of the] house still wear the mask, just to protect them from customers because a lot of customers won’t be wearing a mask and then the back of the house like the cooks, I can let them just make their own decision,” Bugarin said.
Previously, it was common for restaurants to require masks for entry based on guidelines from local governments. But it was small businesses that were forced to implement it — and sustain the backlash from upset customers who feel they have had enough.
“I’m coming to that point right now where I’m not gonna be fighting with people about the mask and I am just gonna let people decide it on their own,” Bugarin added.
‘Confuses the customers, staff’
Mask-wearing in California, however, will continue to be “strongly recommended,” particularly in crowded settings or while interacting with people at higher risk of severe illness from the virus.
At Pizza Guys, a Sacramento-based pizza chain specializing in unique flavors and fresh quality food, owner Farah Ikba explained that the decision to lift the mask mandate could add confusion in the service industry.
“It definitely puts a lot of strain in our business because there’s a lot of, ‘yes, go ahead and put down the mask.’ ‘No, don’t put down the mask,'” Ikba said. “It confuses the customers and confuses the staff.”
Now that masks are no longer required, Ikba noted the transition will be gradual – after two years of being asked to implement the rules and facing down public pressure from customers. Still, some customers have even called asking “are you wearing masks? Are you wearing gloves? Are you doing this?” he said.
“We want to ease into the situation, not just because everybody says, go ahead and take off the mask and we take it off,” Ikba told Yahoo Finance. “We have to see what happens once the whole mask situation has taken place. And we just don’t want to get too relaxed because customers are very [cautious],” he added.
According to the most recent guidance from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 90% of U.S. population can go mask free, allowing people who live in counties designated as having low to medium COVID-levels to remove their face coverings inside public spaces.
New York is also poised to do away with several of its COVID-19 protocols for K-12 public schools and proof-of-vaccination requirements for indoor dining, gyms and entertainment venues. That marks a significant milestone, given that the Empire State was once an epicenter of the pandemic.
Andrew Rigie, executive director of NYC Hospitality Alliance, told Yahoo Finance in a statement that the changes represent “an important step in our resilient city’s revival.”
Businesses and citizens alike, however, remain jittery about the prospect of another wave — or even another variant.
Looking to the future – Ikba hopes that people remain vigilant and continue to “wear masks, keeping social distancing, [remain] behind the sneeze guard that we have located in our stores and follow the protocols.”
Dani Romero is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @daniromerotv