Wednesday, February 1, 2023
Feb. 1, 2023

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Mask rollback at Clark County businesses slowly unwinds

By , Columbian business reporter
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4 Photos
Main Street Marijuana cashier Josh Cecil, left, who is fully vaccinated, helps Tom Nicholson of Vancouver as he checks out in Uptown Village Tuesday morning. A number of signs are posted in the store informing customers that the staff are vaccinated and that masks are no longer required for vaccinated customers.
Main Street Marijuana cashier Josh Cecil, left, who is fully vaccinated, helps Tom Nicholson of Vancouver as he checks out in Uptown Village Tuesday morning. A number of signs are posted in the store informing customers that the staff are vaccinated and that masks are no longer required for vaccinated customers. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took businesses and municipal governments by surprise last week when it announced that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear face masks except in sensitive locations such as hospitals.

The guidance marked a significant turning point in the effort to bring an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, and several states quickly updated their own rules to match. Later that same day, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a partial rollback of Washington’s mask mandate, which has been in effect since June 26.

Fully vaccinated individuals — meaning people who are at least two weeks past their second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or their single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — will no longer need to wear masks in most indoor spaces in Washington, Inslee said, although individual businesses can still legally choose to require that all customers and staff be masked.

Several major store chains were quick to roll back their mask requirements for vaccinated customers in the days following the CDC’s announcement. Grocery store chain Trader Joe’s was one of the first, followed quickly by Walmart and Costco, according to multiple reports in USA Today. Another round of stores including Target, Home Depot and CVS followed suit this week, according to a CNN report.

One thing these new policies all tend to have in common, according to the reports: the stores are not going to require customers to provide proof of their vaccination status, relying instead on the honor system to decide who should be masked and who can go without.

That approach also seems to be common among Clark County businesses that have chosen to update their mask rules. Inslee stated Thursday that there is currently no state-level requirement that businesses ask their customers for proof of vaccination.

When Washington imposed the statewide mask mandate last year, many local businesses indicated that they would put up signs to remind customers of the rules but would stop short of requiring their staff to directly confront customers who refused to mask up, citing concerns about employee safety.

Those same concerns are bubbling up again regarding the idea of demanding proof of vaccination from customers. Main Street Marijuana quickly posted signs at its Vancouver and Longview locations last week declaring that masks were optional for vaccinated individuals, but co-owner Adam Hamide said he opted not to start checking vaccination cards at the door.

“We’d considered that at first,” he said, “but I think that would just lead to conflict for the staff, having to check those. We followed the lead of Walmart, Target, Trader Joe’s (and) Costco.”

Other businesses seem to have taken the same approach. The Grains of Wrath brewpub in Camas announced on Facebook Friday that fully vaccinated staff and customers would no longer need to wear a mask in the restaurant.

“We ask that you abide by these rules when visiting Grains of Wrath as policing this is going to be very hard,” the brewpub wrote.

The Battle Ground Cinema multiplex will allow guests to remove their masks if vaccinated, and the theater will trust customers to make that decision, according to Marina Gephart, director of communications and media at parent company Prestige Theatres.

Vancouver Mall general manager Tracy Peters said in an email that the mall is “working to determine just what the implementation of the CDC’s new guidelines looks like in practice.” Individual retailers within the mall will be free to set their own policies, while the common areas will function on the honor system.

“While eliminating mask-wearing for those who are vaccinated is definitely a welcome step in the right direction, Vancouver Mall has no way to determine who is and who is not vaccinated,” she wrote. “Therefore, we are asking each of our shoppers to do what is in their and the community’s best interest with regard to mask wearing in the common areas of the mall.”

There are some exceptions to the honor system approach. In a Facebook post Friday, the Liberty Theatre in Camas declared that “Masks are still REQUIRED at the Liberty Theatre for the time being BUT, if you are fully vaccinated and bring your vaccination card, we will not require you to wear a mask while visiting.”

At the Columbia Square shopping mall on Mill Plain Boulevard, a sign on the door at Madhouse Coffee Co. on Tuesday proclaimed “vaccination cards required upon entry without mask” and said that customers would be asked to put on a mask or order outside unless they were prepared to show a vaccination card.

That approach appears to be fairly uncommon, however, and many Clark County businesses appear to be in no rush to roll back their mask mandates at all. There were no similar signs in the windows of any of Madhouse’s Columbia Square neighbors, and nearly all of the other businesses in the mall still prominently displayed signs proclaiming that masks were required for all customers.

Face masks are still currently required in county offices and buildings, according to Marissa Armstrong, senior communications specialist at Clark County Public Health, although the county is currently waiting for updated guidance from the state Department of Labor and Industries.

Reactions among Vancouver residents and shoppers since Thursday have been mixed. Coming out of Madhouse Coffee on Tuesday, Vancouver resident Meghan Holliday said she was glad to see the proof-of-vaccination sign on the door.

“Personally, I’d still prefer everyone to wear masks” at businesses for the time being, she said, but added that if businesses feel the need to roll back their rules, she’d rather see them use a verification system instead of the honor system.

James Neiman of Vancouver said he was surprised at the timing of the new CDC guidance, given that the vaccination process still seems to be at a relatively early point, and said he thought the mask decision should be up to individual businesses based on their size and customer traffic density.

“I definitely see a point later in the summer where it might make more sense” to stop wearing them, he said.

Other shoppers and residents seemed eager for a change of pace. Gary Sapp of Vancouver said he was glad to see the mask mandate end, and Washougal resident Nolan Nielson said he was on his way to get his vaccine card laminated so he could easily carry it and present it in lieu of wearing a mask.

East Vancouver resident John Bentley said he was fully vaccinated and felt “quite liberated” by the new CDC guidelines, although he added that he was concerned that unvaccinated people would use them as an “excuse” to stop wearing masks in public.

“It seems there is a lot of overlap between those who are resistant to getting vaccinated and those who resist wearing masks,” he wrote in a message.

Clark County Public Health officer Dr. Alan Melnick said that COVID-19 activity is still elevated in the county and that, although businesses are not required to do so, their safest course of action is to either maintain a universal mask requirement or verify that their unmasked customers are fully vaccinated.

“Relying on the honor system when relaxing face covering requirements does have the potential for people to be untruthful about whether they are fully vaccinated,” he wrote in an email.

Reporter Calley Hair contributed to this story.

Columbian business reporter