Streetlight Records supervisor Rob Zvaleko sorts through records near the store's signage.
(Max Chun / Lookout Santa Cruz)

‘Playing with fire’: COVID cases are dropping by half, but some retailers keep their own mask requirements

The county’s mask mandate ended on Tuesday night. Then, why are retailers like The Starving Musician, Shen’s Gallery, Streetlight Records, Toque Blanche, Pacific Thai and Pacific Trading Co. keeping theirs?

It’s only the second day after the county rescinded the mask mandate from November, but at The Starving Musician, nothing has changed. A masked man in a grey flannel shirt and beanie sits on a stool behind a line of amplifiers and effects boards just inside the entrance of the used music equipment store on Pacific Avenue. He plucks away at his choice of electric guitars while fiddling with the tuning pegs as one does when trying out used instruments. A few feet in front of him stands a green laminated sign with the now-familiar phrase “no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service.”

The Starving Musician is one of at least half a dozen businesses in downtown Santa Cruz alone that has kept its masking requirement intact, despite the guidelines change. Most of the others have shifted the language from “required” to “strongly recommend.”

Dropping the mask mandate isn’t unreasonable given that county COVID data continues to move in a positive direction. Hospitalizations are slightly down to 28 from last week’s 33 and the 14-day average is down to -49% from last week’s -8%. Similarly, UCSC’s positivity rate has plummeted to a meager 0.6% compared to the 7% figure from mid-January.

As a result, the at-home COVID tests that were akin to lost treasure just a month ago are now much more accessible.

“The sales for tests have definitely declined,” says Front Street CVS Management Team Member Vanessa Brooks, adding that the store now has a backstock for the first time. “People are still coming in for them, but not in mobs waiting for the store to open like before.”

Additionally, those in need of tests can now order them online and pick them up in store. Better yet, insurance will now cover it.

“You can pay out of pocket, and send the receipt to your insurance company for coverage,” says Brooks. “If you order them online, then you can input insurance information through the online payment system.”

While there’s no doubt that most people would love to show the bottom half of their faces freely once again, we are all being advised to take it slowly.

A walk through downtown Santa Cruz shows that just about every business still strongly recommends mask wearing, and some — including The Starving Musician, Shen’s Gallery, Streetlight Records, Toque Blanche, Pacific Thai, Pacific Trading Co. and Gayle’s in Capitola— even continue to require it. Owners and employees cite obvious health concerns, safety of essential workers, and simple practicality as reasons to keep their mask requirements in effect.

It just lowers the stress level for everyone involved. Thankfully we haven’t had much pushback so far, one guy got really pissed yesterday but that’s all.

“It just lowers the stress level for everyone involved,” says Paul Raney, manager of The Starving Musician. “Thankfully we haven’t had much pushback so far, one guy got really pissed yesterday but that’s all.”

Raney believes that it’s only a matter of time until masks come back across the board and that it’s safer to continue what they have done throughout the pandemic.

“Spring break is coming pretty soon and then summer tourists will follow,” he says. “Cases will definitely rise again at some point. Getting rid of the masks now would feel like playing with fire.”

Along with the mask requirement, The Starving Musician has also kept a limit on the number of customers allowed in the store at any one time. That Won’t be changing anytime soon. And to Raney, that’s ok.

“Most people don’t give us issues,” he says. “Maybe we get a grumble or two here and there, but they get over it.”

The Starving Musician won't be removing their masking requirements anytime soon.
(Max Chun / Lookout Santa Cruz)

April Shen, owner of Shen’s Gallery antique store, is in the same boat.

“It doesn’t feel like we’re there yet in terms of safety,” she says, adding that all patrons have complied with their rules thus far. “Maybe we will change the rules when things look really good, but not yet.”

Shen says that checking vaccination status raises issues of its own.

“As a business owner, it’s better to just require the mask for everyone than to check a vaccination card,” she says. “We don’t want to discriminate.”

Then comes the issue of weekend visitors, because rules vary by county, there is a much higher likelihood of confusion when people come for the weekend.

“Some people genuinely don’t know since the rules are a little different everywhere,” says Ryan Ogilvie of Streetlight Records. “But everyone that’s come in here has been cool about it.”

Ogilvie adds that the small amount of pushback they experience may be chalked up to an intense desire for normalcy.

“I think a lot of those people just want things to go back to the way they were,” he says. “It’s just not that easy.”

So far, so good for the businesses with unwavering masking rules, and though the state and county guidelines are bound to continue shifting, one thing is certain: unmasking is not on the immediate horizon.