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Business Owners Have Decisions To Make After New CDC Mask Guidance

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Mask or no mask? That's the big question after last week's abrupt change in guidance from the CDC. The CDC now says it's safe for fully vaccinated people to go without masks, even indoors. And that has left businesses in a confusing situation where they're left to make the rules and enforce them on their own. NPR's Andrea Hsu reports.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: On the sidewalk outside Jeni's Ice Cream in Alexandria, Va., Rhea and Mark Woodcock wait for their turn to go inside. They're regulars here, so they already know what flavors they're getting.

RHEA WOODCOCK: Oh, the only one there is - Texas sheet cake.

HSU: Is that what you get every week?

R WOODCOCK: Every week, and he gets ooey gooey butter cake.

HSU: The Woodcocks are vaccinated, and they're wearing masks. Jeni's has signs all over their door saying, masks mandatory.

R WOODCOCK: That's why I'm wearing a mask.

MARK WOODCOCK: Yeah, we're ready to burn them. We never liked them to begin with.

HSU: Another customer, Christine Woll, also walks up with a mask on. She says she'll be wearing hers for the foreseeable future even though she's also vaccinated. She's got two toddlers at home.

CHRISTINE WOLL: I mean, there's no reason why we shouldn't. There's - it does nothing to harm me to have a mask on, and it could help somebody else.

HSU: As of this weekend, there is no longer any state or local law requiring vaccinated people to wear masks indoors here. But Jeni's itself can still require it, and that's what they're doing. Some of the biggest retailers in America are going the other direction. Target, Walmart and Costco all dropped their mask rules for vaccinated people except where state or local laws apply. Of course, all of this falls to an honor system, which is a lot to put on a small business owner like Nicole McGrew.

NICOLE MCGREW: My fear is that people will say they're vaccinated when they're not vaccinated and then just walk around unmasked.

HSU: McGrew is the owner of Threadleaf, a boutique clothing and accessories store in Old Town Alexandria. She is fully vaccinated but has an 11-year-old son who's not. So she still wears a mask. Today it's a beautiful blue and black print made by a Ghanaian designer.

MCGREW: I ordered these last summer. I did not think that we would be wearing masks 13, 14 months later, or I would have ordered a lot (laughter) more.

HSU: She says her customers have been pretty considerate about masks. And up until this weekend, she could just tell people, hey; state law says you have to wear one. Now that Virginia has lifted its mandate, it's up to her to decide what's best for herself and her customers.

MCGREW: You truly are just taking people at their word and having to navigate people's comfort levels. That will be trickier.

HSU: So for a little while longer, she's sticking with masks. In Fayetteville, Ark., Richard McGinnis, owner of Richard's Country Meat Market, has already had some tricky conversations. His governor lifted the state mask mandate at the end of March, but his city, Fayetteville, still requires them. But that's expected to change soon, and he says that's a relief.

RICHARD MCGINNIS: I want everybody happy when they're coming in (laughter). And there's still - you know, there's people that makes them mad when they have to put a mask on.

HSU: You may have heard this idea that lifting mask mandates might encourage holdouts to get vaccinated. McGinnis is skeptical.

MCGINNIS: I don't think it's going to change anything that way. If they're not going to, they're not going to. There's vaccine sitting on the shelves. They can have one this afternoon if they want one.

HSU: But he's not worried about those people. He and all of his employees have been vaccinated. And he says it's about time the CDC made clear why that was important.

MCGINNIS: Because if you still have to wear a mask and do this and do this after you get the vaccination, then why are they telling us we need to do it?

HSU: So with the mask wars finally maybe on the way out, he's turning his attention to a more pressing issue. Business was great in the pandemic because restaurants were closed. How do you keep customers cooking at home now that they can eat out again?

MCGINNIS: We're doing everything in our power to keep that business now (laughter).

HSU: Including making curbside service permanent.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.