Quick Take:

With Santa Cruzans, chief among them business owners, perhaps feeling a little whiplash on the mask front, Lookout’s Neil Strebig offers some observations after talking to folks around the county about it.

Nicole Rimedio spots me as I enter the store, her mask hanging just below her mouth.

She gets up from her work desk and begins fiddling with the mask’s ear straps, prompting me to start reaching into my shirt pocket for mine. I point at my face making a circular motion because well, that’s a universal symbol for a mask, right?

This 2021 version of “Who’s on First” continued for a few more seconds until we both were masked up. The impromptu routine would make a series of curtain calls at others businesses I visited throughout the day.

“It still feels very unclear right now,” Rimedio said.

We’re now a little over a month removed from saying goodbye to masks 一 and now they’re already back.

Rimedio, who co-owns Variance in Santa Cruz, said that from last fall through the spring the business was pretty militant about masks inside the store. Post-June 15, it’s been a bit more laissez-faire. If customers come in with their faces covered, staff will mask up. If customers come in smiling a smile that can be seen, the salutation is returned and the masks stay away.

The issue for Rimedio, as it is for some other owners and employees, has been enforcement. She doesn’t want to get into it and understandably so. Why create tension with your customers?

Nicole Rimedio, co-owner of Variance in Santa Cruz, works on a piece of jewelry inside her store on Thursday, July 22.
Nicole Rimedio, co-owner of Variance in Santa Cruz, works on a piece of jewelry inside her store on Thursday, July 22. Credit: Neil Strebig / Lookout Santa Cruz

Yet we need to start wearing masks again. And that’s where much frustration rests.

Earlier Thursday, Santa Cruz County health officer Gail Newel recommended all persons wear masks in crowded spaces outdoors and indoors.

One Santa Cruz business owner who wished to remain anonymous voiced their concerns over the ongoing recommendations from agencies. It still falls on the business to enforce any rules, they said.

An employee at a San Lorenzo Valley business 一 again, wishing for anonymity 一 said asking for vaccine cards or forcing unvaccinated individuals to wear masks felt as though it was ostracizing them, likening it to a scarlet letter.

It’s a sentiment I can understand. Driving out here from the East Coast, I found no mask enforcement during stops in South Dakota and Wyoming. I’d pump gas with a mask on and enter stores noticing the “masks are recommended” signs outside.

Usually, I’d be the lone mask-wearer and was often met with scathing stares from passersby. It made me second-guess myself for wearing one. A desire for acceptance is part of human nature, it can be difficult to not cave to peer pressure when one is isolated as such.

Businesses are allowed to ask employees and customers for vaccination cards; employees and customers can decline to disclose any of that information. Though, like many things with this pandemic, the notion of having such a conversation is virtually taboo.

Anti-vaccine rhetoric has often painted such perceived violations of privacy as violations of HIPAA, the federal law restricting release of medical information, though it’s typically not the case. Perhaps equally damning were the struggles of government agencies to explain what was and was not allowed, and to communicate that. Instead, those explanations largely came via media outlets.

And we know what happens there. People get their news from different places, and in different doses. And silos are built around whichever belief you fancy: Masks are good or masks are bad.

And isn’t that telling of the pandemic? Whether at the federal, state or local level, there hasn’t been a firm understanding of what we can and can’t do. Suggestions and recommendations have been the ongoing precedent. Granted, part of that has been due to dealing with a generational pandemic; there was a lot about COVID-19 that we did not understand early on, let alone understand how to enforce.

Yet, the result has left many of us wondering what the hell can we do? We know masks help eliminate the spread of the virus. We know the Delta variant has been spreading aggressively, particularly among unvaccinated Americans. But whether it’s vaccines or masks it still falls on the individual.

“I would like more guidance from the county,” Tessa Mahan said.

The 25-year-old Mahan, who works at Botanic and Luxe in Santa Cruz, said she recently began wearing her mask again. She was in Portland, Oregon, at the beginning of the pandemic before returning home to Santa Cruz.

Compared to Portland, she feels Santa Cruz has done a better job handling the pandemic 一 though leadership has remained an issue in her eyes.

This issue of leadership and enforcement isn’t necessarily unique to Santa Cruz. In Pennsylvania, my home before settling here in Surf City, it was a polarizing point of contention. Some businesses followed the rules, others rejected them completely.

This was most notable in restaurants, where enforcement was blurred among three agencies: the Department of Agriculture, the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement and local authorities. It created some miscommunication with violations and what to expect.

But we’re talking masks right now, not operations during partial lockdowns. Though the notion that responsibility falls on businesses and patrons to self-police is largely the same. Santa Cruz is fortunate 一 from what I’ve seen and gathered from employees/business owners 一 to have largely policed itself throughout the pandemic.

Is that sustainable? Is that pressure fair for restaurants and businesses that have had to navigate the past 18 months of uncertainty? Only 11 cases of the Delta variant had been documented in Santa Cruz County as of Thursday, Newel said, so we’re still a ways away from another shutdown. Is it even worth the time to stress over?

“What is going to happen, happens,” Selena Zontos said.

Zontos, who owns Skavenge Art Gallery in Felton, said customers have been largely regulating themselves, with about 70% coming into the store with a mask on. For her, managing the uncertainties has become normal as a business owner. As I spoke with Zontos, watching her paint orange flora on wooden coasters, there was a resignation in her voice. Not anti-mask, not anti-vaccine, just a slight sniffle of defeat in her tone.

”Now I’m feeling I should go back to wearing a mask,” she said.

Selena Zontos, owner of Skavenge Art Gallery in Felton.
Selena Zontos, owner of Skavenge Art Gallery in Felton, works on some hand painted coasters inside the store on Thursday, July 22. Credit: Neil Strebig / Lookout Santa Cruz

And I guess that’s been the case for most of us. Even though that feeling of normality over the past month 一 cookouts; open travel; sitting at a bar, maskless, conversing with strangers who are also 一 has been a blessing.

To have enjoyed that return of sanity, only to see it now retreating over the horizon, seems cruel. And it feels all too 2020.

Follow Neil Strebig on: Twitter. A chef-turned-journalist, Neil has a track record for covering the hospitality industry and local businesses. Neil joins Lookout as a Report for America Corps member. Previously...