To mask or not to mask: How some Capital City businesses are navigating relaxed CDC guidelines

Triple Goddess Bookstore owner Dawne Botke-Coe | Laina G. Stebbins

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit businesses hard, particularly smaller operations. On top of the hardships of decreased revenue and more, businesses also have had to deal with a rollercoaster of government-imposed restrictions that have tightened and loosened as COVID-19 cases and our understanding of how to combat it continue to change.

The most sudden change came on May 13, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fully vaccinated people are no longer required to wear masks or social distance. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) soon concurred with the decision.

On Monday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer officially lifted indoor mask mandates for fully vaccinated workers and plans to lift outdoor gathering restrictions on Tuesday. The state’s broad gathering and mask mandates are set to be lifted on July 1. By then, local business owners expect that many more guests will come in unmasked.

But the guidance did not include any requirement for people to show proof of vaccination. Michigan doesn’t have vaccine passports — and Republicans have introduced legislation to ban them, anyway.

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Some major retailers like Meijer, Walmart, Costco, Kroger and Target have  chosen to issue storewide policies that allow fully vaccinated customers to shop mask-free. 

But the policy change seemed to come out of left field to many smaller business owners and has left them with the burden of choosing how they would — or wouldn’t — adapt.

“It was really rough when the CDC updated their guidelines without any heads up to businesses and restaurants,” said Cara Nader, owner of Strange Matter Coffee in Lansing. “… The CDC really threw that curveball. We just kind of have to be ready for new things every week.”

A warm weekend followed the news, leaving the popular Lansing coffeeshop in a lurch about what to do to protect employees and patrons amidst a swell of patrons.

“I can tell you that when the CDC lifted those regulations, my entire staff was terrified that we were going to suddenly unmask and reopen,” Nader said. “Terrified for their safety, terrified because they have to deal with people who are really rude, things like that. So at least going about it slow, giving people time to adapt and change and get back into the swing of how we did things a year and a half ago is important.”

For now, the Strange Matter’s doors on Washington Avenue in Lansing are closed with only masked employees inside. Customers may only order from the sidewalk at what Nader calls “the Cubby,” a half-door counter with a plexiglass shield.

The stringent health-conscious approach to serving customers, even as federal and state restrictions begin to loosen, was born from a combination of staff input and some unpleasant customer interactions regarding masks and social distancing at the start of the pandemic last winter.

“We had a really challenging time with people just being rude to the staff. It’s not a lot of people; it’s a really small percentage … but I felt really bad for the staff being put in an unsafe position,” Nader said.

Strange Matter’s downtown Lansing location has closed and reverted into a roastery for the business, with plans to hopefully reopen it as a cafe once again this summer. As for the location on Michigan Avenue, Nader says any decision to let customers back in and unmask would have to be agreed to by the staff.

“Just like we wear longer shorts at work because we don’t want to get splashed with hot coffee, we might wear masks for a little bit just in case,” Nader said.

Another Lansing business choosing the better-safe-than-sorry approach is the Triple Goddess Bookstore, a city mainstay of nearly three decades on East Michigan Avenue.

“I think it’s going to be a while before I completely let go of the mask,” said owner Dawne Botke-Coe. 

She said not much has changed for her shop since the new CDC guidance came out, and many other local businesses she is in contact with are also moving forward cautiously.

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Botke-Coe is fully vaccinated but still wears a mask around others, and requires mask use inside her store. Patrons must knock first in order to enter, indoor capacity is capped at 10 people, hours are reduced, free masks are in abundance and cleaning is frequent.

“I keep very, very close watch on the numbers and what our governor is doing, and how she’s encouraging people. So I sort of keep up on all that. And I thought, let’s err on the side of caution. … We’re still doing basically as much as we can, social distancing and the masks and cleaning and all that,” Botke-Coe said.

She said she is unsure when she will feel completely comfortable going back to pre-pandemic indoor protocols.

“None of us have gotten sick here; nothing has cropped up. So what we’ve been doing is apparently working,” Botke-Coe said. “And what I’m doing, I think, is waiting to see — you know, getting up to 70% [of the state vaccinated],” and waiting to see what else researchers discover about immunity durations, newer variants of COVID-19 and more before loosening protocols.

Inching toward the other end of the spectrum, American Fifth Spirits on Larch Street in Lansing has chosen to balance the relaxed CDC recommendations with continued cautiousness on the part of staffers.

American Fifth General Manager Jessica Reed said that following the new federal guidance, she and the staff decided to wait until the local government, Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) and other local entities also chimed in.

One they got the go-ahead to essentially make their own choice on the issue, Reed said that a staff meeting was held to decide how to move forward. All employees at the distillery are fully vaccinated.

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“We ultimately made the choice to stay masked while we’re working, just as an extra precaution because everything has happened so quickly,” Reed said. “We just feel a little bit safer that way.

“However, we are fully understanding that the public is getting tired. They’re getting tired of all of this, as we are, too. And if they are fully vaccinated, they are more than welcome to come in without their masks or with them, and there’ll be no judgement either way,” she continued.

As for unvaccinated guests who may take advantage of the new rules, Reed said the possibility is “a big worry.”

“We can’t control other people, and I think that we’ve just gotten to a point to where we’re all vaccinated, we’re still making those choices for ourselves. And it’s hard to trust people sometimes, but you just kind of have to do it,” she said.

Reed noted that American Fifth has had very few problems with patrons resisting health protocols so far, and “99% of the people coming through the door are still masked.”

But the distillery will still leave the decision of mask-wearing to the individual comfort levels of staff members while they work.

“Me personally, I’ll probably wear my mask for a little while longer. Just a personal choice. We have some pretty like-minded folks here and I expect that they will [too], and we’ll support them no matter what they do,” Reed said.

Reed added that she is aware and supportive of many other businesses that are making a point to keep a mask mandate in place.

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One Lansing business that has fully embraced the new CDC guidance is the Soup Spoon Cafe near Sparrow Hospital. General manager Keith Buchele says that he would rather follow the advice of the country’s top health officials than create his own guidelines.

“We’re looking at science and we’re looking at what the experts are telling us, because we’re not scientists. We’re restaurant people,” Buchele said. “So we’re just kind of staying in our lane. We’re paying attention to what we’re told is the safe and current practice, which is what we’ve done from the beginning.”

As soon as the CDC relaxed mask and social distancing guidance for vaccinated people, the Soup Spoon restaurant followed suit. While the cafe’s indoor capacity is still below what is recommended, employees and diners that are fully vaccinated are not required to wear masks. Buchele said he and most of the staff are vaccinated and choose not to wear masks at work.

Buchele said he is not concerned about the possibility of some unvaccinated guests surreptitiously going unmasked inside the restaurant, and to do so would create an adversarial atmosphere with customers.

“We don’t enforce it with guests. It’s just like everything else — it’s not our mandate. So our mandate is to follow the rules and the good faith effort which is what is required of us, and we have to trust people. There’s no point doing it any other way,” Buchele said.

“… We have to deal with so much in our industry already. And so much of this is being put on us to be the police. We’re not police. We’re not the police for this; we’re not mask police; we are not vaccination police. We are providing a service. We’re here to let people have a good time and relax and enjoy themselves.”

He said that if the state of Michigan were to ask Soup Spoon and other businesses to try and enforce the new rules, the DHHS would have to explicitly say so and provide enforcement assistance.

“If the state is going to require us to do that, they need to provide staff, they need to provide the equipment, they need to provide a state employee person to come and do that for us. But we haven’t seen those people, so we’re gonna go ahead and go on faith because I feel like that’s the safest thing,” Buchele said.

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