Keeping track of masking protocol and how to enforce it will continue to be a challenge for business owners.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
COVID Economy

Amid the muffled mask guidance, local businesses begin plotting their path back to life

The Centers for Disease Control says one thing, the state is following another course (at least until June 15), and from there it remains unclear what kind of guidance will exist for businesses on how to check whether a customer has been vaccinated or not.

Mask or no mask? The answer to that question keeps getting more muffled.

And the timing is inconvenient for small business owners trying to safely breathe life back into their ventures just as the gulf between state and national guidance widens.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that fully vaccinated individuals could begin to go back to life as normal last week and big box stores followed suit by removing mask mandates in stores for vaccinated customers, it opened up a potential land of conflict here in California, where caution will remain the refrain until CDC guidelines are adopted June 15.

The result has left some anxious downtown Santa Cruz employees and business owners questioning whether Gov. Gavin Newsom’s reopening plan will lead to conflict — and things are bound to become more complicated once businesses must decide whether to verify if customers are vaccinated before they can enter their establishments.

“The decision to reopen June 15, right before July 4, is kind of terrifying,” Tabby Cat Coffee co-owner Lisa Curran said. “It seems like it invites the anti-maskers to really intensify.”

Curran acknowledged that there has been some anxiety building as Santa Cruz approaches both the June 15 reopening date and peak tourism season. So far, the coffee shop hasn’t had many issues with patrons not wanting to wear masks, but she said it still causes uneasiness with staff on the front lines who have to deal with customers and navigate potential conflicts.

Santa Cruz has already witnessed one highly publicized conflict as a group of maskless protesters toured through Trader Joe’s in February. While it was just one incident, it remains on the mind of business owners such as Curran and highlights the polarization among Americans when it comes to fabric face coverings.

It’s not the locals, “usually it’s people from out of town,” Emmett Balassone said. Balassone, who works as a manager at Realm clothing store and its sister location Pacific Wave on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, said when there’s an issue with masks, it’s usually customers from outside the area who are unaware masks are mandated in California.

That confusion is nothing new. Across the country, state and local authorities have navigated the pandemic significantly differently from one another. Now, as larger corporations such as Target, Trader Joe’s and Starbucks eliminate mask mandates at locations nationwide for fully vaccinated customers, the challenge of knowing when and where to wear a mask becomes increasingly difficult.

O’Neill assistant manager Bruce Hopner, who has been at the surf shop’s downtown Santa Cruz location for seven years, said the store has had minimal issues thus far. But with different state policies and larger retail stores eliminating mask requirements, he expects the shop will begin to see more customers misunderstanding when masks are still required in Santa Cruz.

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Avatar Imports owner Tim Frankel agreed that local customers have been cognizant of wearing masks and social distancing within the clothing store. Frankel added that sales in April were stellar and he expects downtown foot traffic to continue to increase as restrictions are eliminated.

At Atlantis Fantasyworld comic book shop in Santa Cruz, the anxiety has been easier to navigate, store manager Trisha Wolfe said.

“The whole staff has been vaccinated, so that helps,” she said; the shop has a staff of fewer than five. While she recognized there are some concerns with tourists not understanding California laws and which stores require masks, having the employees vaccinated makes navigating any potential hiccups over the next few weeks that much easier.