I’ll try not to get smug about this, but bear with me if I’m a little sententious about the ironies I’m witnessing, particularly regarding social distancing and masking rules for which we are rapidly approaching the three-year corona-versary. I’ll concede this much: few municipalities if any are still actively imposing restrictions at this point. Not even famously draconian California has introduced any sweeping mask requirements for workers, outside of pre-existing mandates in healthcare settings, as the dead of winter approaches. Private businesses are another story, particularly small ones that are often more willing to buck the trend than the more mainstream-aligned corporate world. And “buck the trend” applies in both directions: small businesses were among those who most adamantly dug their heels in during peak COVID, asserting that social distancing restrictions were lowering capitalization and hindering their ability to conduct business. Many fought as though their survival depended on it. It probably did.
Conversely, other small businesses are the only ones electing to continue COVID prophylactic measures, although they are the exception. It is entirely the right of a business to expect certain fundamental behaviors from customers and patrons—e.g., no shirt no shoes no service. And if, for example, a coffee shop wishes to impose masking, sanitation, and social distancing rules well beyond the point that most governments are imposing them (and beyond the point most people are willing to comply), the business owners have every right to gauge whether elevated restrictions may reach such a tipping point that they repel customers. And that tipping point varies widely across the country.
Take, for example, this coffee shop mini-chain in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York:
Gimme! Coffee, an established chainlet with five locations in and around the consummate college town of Ithaca, still applied the social distancing, sanitation, and masking rules akin to peak COVID, at least during my visit.
It still looked like summer 2020 at Gimme! Coffee, but no, this photo dates from June 2022, a time when virtually all municipalities had rolled back such requirements (including Ithaca). Most businesses had eliminated these requirements weeks or even months before that time; the most conservative were taking precautions akin to CDC guidelines, while other businesses in states that defied CDC recommendations had lifted all masking requirements a year earlier. Gimme! Coffee clearly determined that enough customers would be wiling to deal with its unusually strict and prolonged expectations to procure a cup of its nationally recognized java. Who am I to judge? The mini-chain was a bit larger in 2020 but decided to close its two New York City locations during the pandemic. The sociopolitical climate of Ithaca is such that many of the regulars may appreciate or even prefer masking rules to continue well after a heavily observant state like New York threw in the towel. I find no evidence one way or another that Gimme! Coffee still applies its masking rules today, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did. And here’s another business in central Ithaca that can’t tell us “masks are required” simply at least once.
Travel 300 miles to the south and an even smaller business offers the exact opposite approach.
The storefront in the above photo, Wrenn’s Barber Shop, sits at the southern edge of Barracks Row, a commercial street in Washington DC that links the Capitol Hill and Navy Yard neighborhoods. I don’t know much about this business, but its humble appearance and signage suggest that it predates many of the establishments that have swarmed the area amidst the gentrification of Capitol Hill and the massive investment in new housing in Navy Yard, a previously desolate and largely uninhabited area. Old Google Street View imagery shows that Wrenn’s was here at least as long ago as 2008. Perched in the doorway at Wrenn’s is a sign I haven’t seen before.
DC dropped its masking rules on March 1 of 2022, Basically, this small business is offering a different kind of masking expectation: unless it’s the real deal and is medically sanctioned, don’t wear one in here. Such a restriction might appear strange to a person from Ithaca, but it’s a situation I first observed a few months ago, when writing about shoplifting precautions in malls. As I indicated back in August, masks may offer some prophylaxis to airborne viruses like SARS-CoV-2, but it has the intended consequence of completely concealing a person’s appearance, making it much easier for those with ill-intent to get away with dastardly deeds in businesses, then to escape with no capacity for the employees to identify the perp. I remember catching wind of tactic way back in April or May of 2020, before that summer unleashed an upsurge in crime nationwide which the nation had never seen before. Ever. By no means am I attributing the 2020 crime spike (which in most cities has not yet abated) to the wearing of face masks. But masks unequivocally present an impediment to identification and make it easier to shoplift, to assault, or to commit basically any and all crimes where businesses are the target.
As a result, Wrenn’s Barber Shop in Washington DC has exercised its right as a business owner (potentially the property owner of the storefront itself) to apply a dress code. If a person comes in wearing an N95 face mask, the owner presumes the concern for COVID is legitimate. And, quite understandably, barber shops would elicit greater consternation for spread of viruses than, say, a hardware store—the very nature of the work requires people to be in extreme proximity to one another. But if a person comes in with a cloth mask, a bandanna, or, heaven forbid, a balaclava, the proprietors at Wrenn’s will say quite simply, take it off or don’t come in.
Wrenn’s isn’t alone in this regard; other small businesses have reported applying similar restrictions in an attempt to deter crime. Some have taken it a step further: no masks, no exceptions. This approach derogates authority to its simplest and purest form: the private individual and his or her property. His or her domain. Given the number of small businesses ravaged by crime these last few years, it’s an approach I can understand just as a comparatively low-crime city like Ithaca is more likely to breed Gimme! Coffee. It remains to be seen if small businesses in California can take the Wrenn’s Barber Shop approach; if this current guidance is any indication, Los Angeles County still asserts the following: “No one can be prevented from wearing a mask to participate in an activity or enter a business.” If this directive is an enforceable law, Wrenn’s Barber Shop might run afoul of it.
Masking rules pit public health against public safety. The laboratories of democracy will always take a variegated approach. But at some point don’t the two public services overlap?