Recovery & Reopening

To mask or not to mask: Local businesses vary on policies following end of mandate

After Santa Cruz County health officials lifted the mask mandate late last month, businesses have had to decide whether to continue to require them for their customers. While most continue to recommend them, a survey of retail shops, grocery stores and other shops shows a variety of approaches.

In recent months, COVID-19 case numbers have ebbed and flowed in Santa Cruz County, recently resulting in the relaxing of face-covering requirements. But businesses can still make the final call on what to require for their customers, creating a patchwork of potentially confusing policies countywide.

Since Santa Cruz County lifted its mask mandate on Sept. 29 amid declining community transmission levels, the majority of businesses Lookout surveyed have stopped requiring masks for vaccinated customers, though most still encourage it.

For the foreseeable future, decisions on masking will remain in the hands of businesses, according to county officials, despite a slight increase in COVID-19 cases since the mandate was lifted.

Here’s a look at the mask policies at grocery stores, gyms, shops and more throughout Santa Cruz County.

Business owners have different approaches

Maggie Rathmann, the owner of Maggie’s Place, a consignment shop on Soquel Avenue, doesn’t require vaccinated people to wear a mask in her store, although she continues to wear a mask. She said the changes in the mask mandate have only confused both her and her customers.

“I really think they should have just left the mandate alone for a while until we’ve been out of the woods for more than a day or two, or even a week,” she said. “I don’t think anybody around here is complaining about it, other than the people that aren’t going to get vaccinated anyway.”

Jacin from Blue Heron Farms bundling produce for a customer at the farmers market in downtown Santa Cruz
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Chris Johnson, a glassblower and gallery owner in Davenport, still requires facial coverings at his studio regardless of county mandates.

“A mask is such a small thing to do, I mean, I’d like to see people’s faces, but I feel like it’s not worth it,” he said. “If I have COVID, and I’m transmitting it, I would feel horrible. You know, why take a risk?”

Johnson believes the county should reinstate mask mandates.

“There’s a section of the population that isn’t very nimble, and so I can see why it might be difficult to reinstate the mask mandate, but I think they should,” he said.

After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moved Santa Cruz County to its second-lowest COVID-19 transmission...

Santa Cruz County dropped its mandate on Sept. 29 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its COVID-19 Data Tracker to show the county had moderate, or yellow, transmission levels.

But since then, the county has moved up into the substantial, or orange, transmission category. Over the past seven days, the county has seen 256 positive COVID-19 cases — a 39% increase from the previous seven days. The numbers are still significantly lower than when the Delta variant surged in mid-August.

The future of masking in Santa Cruz County

The county doesn’t plan to reinstate the mask mandate, even with substantial transmission levels, according to Corinne Hyland, a spokesperson for the county’s health services agency.

“Santa Cruz County Public Health did not want to establish a process where face-covering rules change on a day-to-day basis, and our commitment to residents was that the order would sunset once we reached the moderate community transmission level as outlined in the order,” she said via email, referring to the Aug. 19 order that reinstated the mask mandate.

Hyland emphasized that face coverings are still strongly recommended in all indoor spaces.

The lifted mask mandate doesn’t affect the state of California’s face-covering rules, which require unvaccinated individuals to wear them. Masks are also still required indoors at K-12 institutions and on public transit, among other places.

The county doesn’t have an established metric for reinstating the face-covering order, Hyland said, but officials will continue to monitor cases and hospital capacity both locally and regionally.

In terms of masking policies, Santa Cruz County has largely broken away from the Bay Area counties, all of which have high or substantial case levels and still have mask mandates in place.

On Thursday, the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Sonoma and the city of Berkeley announced they will lift indoor masking requirements when the jurisdictions remain in the CDC’s moderate transmission tier for at least three weeks, among other criteria related to vaccination rates and hospitalizations.