Clark County retailers reacted with a mix of resignation and trepidation as Washington’s renewed mask mandate took effect Monday.
Several local restaurant and shop owners said they encountered minimal hassle on the first day. But they voiced fears that the masks could herald the return of other lockdown measures and concern about being back in the position of telling guests to mask up.
“This has been an incredibly hard year to work in retail,” said Leah Pickering, owner of Kazoodles Toys in east Vancouver. “Even when you work in an incredibly sunshiny place, this has been an incredibly hard year, and it’s really just revolving around this one issue of masks. The people who are unhappy are really quite unhappy.”
Gov. Jay Inslee put Washington’s original mask mandate in place last year as one of several restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Most of those restrictions were gradually lifted in the spring, and the mask mandate was updated to only require masks for unvaccinated individuals in indoor spaces.
The vast majority of businesses opted not to quiz customers about their vaccination status or require proof, so, in practice, masks became optional for all customers.
But with COVID-19 case numbers once again rising due to the highly contagious delta variant, Inslee announced last week that all Washingtonians would again be required to wear masks in indoor, public spaces, regardless of vaccination status.
The news wasn’t entirely unexpected; several business owners said they were expecting some sort of response in recent weeks as news reports began to chronicle surging case numbers and overloaded hospitals.
“For us, we kind of saw the writing on the wall for the past couple of weeks, so staff was pretty quick to adapt,” said Steve Valenta, owner of The Mighty Bowl in downtown Vancouver.
Customer traffic also began to dwindle slightly last week, he said, which he attributed to a general sense of unease about safety amid the delta variant surge.
The Mighty Bowl is still using a walk-up window model rather than return to indoor seating, Valenta said. A few customers objected to wearing a mask at the counter because they’re still outside, but he said, in general, far fewer people have objected to the masks this time around.
Still, he added, he hopes the new mandate will be limited in duration because the masks make customer service and staff teambuilding more difficult.
“Our world and our business is so much customer interaction and connection,” he said, “and so the downside for us is these masks create that one layer, that barrier to connection with customers.”
Pickering also said she and her staff at Kazoodles didn’t encounter any major arguments about masks on the first day, which came as a relief given some of the negative interactions they encountered during the last mandate. The coming weekend will be the real test, she said, when the store will likely have much higher foot traffic.
Trinitie Ramey, a staff member at Husted’s Hazel Dell Lanes, said the bowling alley saw many customers who objected to the masks last time around; she’s already begun to encounter a similar response this time while making calls to check in with regular bowlers about the alley’s bowling league.
“I’ve had a few calls where people are asking (if masks are mandatory), and I have to say yes,” she said. “I’ve had people hang up on me. I’ve had people cuss me out saying it’s stupid. I’ve had people say they’re not coming back for league.”
Ramey said she sympathizes — bowling is an active sport, and the masks can get hot and uncomfortable during play — but the alley began putting up signs last week to warn customers that a new state mandate was on the way.
Uptown Barrel Room owner Dwayne Christensen described a more measured customer response at his bar and restaurant on Main Street. Business was brisk Monday, he said, and there were several people who walked in without masks but generally were willing to put them on when prompted.
That was also the pattern at Battle Ground Cinema, according to Elie Kassab, owner of parent company Prestige Theatres. A few customers complained, he said, but most were willing to mask back up.
Ramey and Christensen both described a surge in customer traffic in the week leading up to the start of the new mask mandate, a pattern which Christensen said mirrored a similar last-minute rush before the original pandemic lockdown measures took effect.
The behavior speaks to a widespread concern among customers that the masks could be followed by additional restrictions, such as occupancy limits at stores and restaurants, he said. It’s a question that’s weighing heavily on business owners, too, many of whom have only recently been able to return to full-house operations after more than a year of restricted occupancy.
“There’s a little bit of worried tension there that this is going back to where it was last year,” Christensen said. “They see the masks come out, and they think, ‘What’s going to come next?’ ”