PORT TOWNSEND — The effect of Gov. Jay Inslee’s No Mask, No Service order was immediate.
“The first couple of weeks [of June] were brutal. The day the state issued (its order), it was on the news, it was all over every publication. On that day, everyone had a mask,” said Kris Nelson, who owns Sirens Pub, Alchemy Bistro and Wine Bar, The In Between and The Old Whiskey Mill.
Tuesday marked the first day of implementation of the statewide order aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. It supported a countywide mask mandate issued on May 28 for anyone entering a business. Employees have been required to wear them since early June.
Nearly 150 businesses pledged to require face masks of customers, but interactions could be tense.
Nelson said that prior to the state mandate, there were instances in each of her businesses in which she or an employee would need to provide alternative options for customers who refused to wear masks, with those conversations often becoming confrontations. But since the state mandate has been in effect, those confrontations have occurred less and less.
“We have a lot of customers every day. Most people wear their masks,” Nelson said.
“We do get ‘chewed out’ by people that say really horrible, mean, and nasty things to us only about once a day at each location, which is a huge improvement from before where we were getting that about 15 times a day.”
The mandatory mask ordinance requires that businesses refuse service to customers who refuse to wear face masks in public spaces in which staying at least six feet apart is not possible.
Businesses that do not comply with the masking order could face consequences ranging from steep fines to losing their business licenses while customers themselves could face misdemeanor charges.
Public health officials agree that wearing masks slows the spread of the virus, which can be carried by people who are asymptomatic and don’t know that they can infect others. The point of wearing a mask is not to protect the wearer but to protect others since people without symptoms can transmit the virus, they said.
Early on in the 2020 pandemic, agreement nationally on the necessity of face masks was not uniform, but by early April, the national Centers for Disease Control and the state Department of Health recommended them.
Since Jefferson County was approved on May 23 to move into Phase 2 of the statewide four-phase reopening plan, many businesses have used signage to encourage customers to wear face masks as well as requiring them to use hand sanitizers upon entering the shop or restaurant.
Some shops have even rearranged how the flow of their stores to encourage social distancing, for instance, the Quilcene Village Store has designated one of their doors for entering and the other for exiting, making it easier for staff to make sure customers wear masks when they come in.
“Were funneling people through one door and on that door we have a notification that masks are required,” said Ken Brotherton, owner of Quilcene Village Store.
“We try to acknowledge each customer as they come in. If they’re not wearing a mask or wearing a mask improperly, we notify them that they need to be wearing a mask.”
Too encourage mask-wearing many shops and restaurants are providing face masks for folks that have forgotten theirs.
“We required masks in the store when we first opened in June and we continue to do that,” Holly Mayshark, general manager of Quimper Mercantile in Port Townsend.
“We have one staff member that their whole job is to greet at the door and make sure people have masks before they come in,” she added.
“There’s signage everywhere… it’s very clear for everyone that they have to have a mask before they come in and shop.”
Some people refuse to wear masks, seeing them as making a political statement or as a violation of their constitutional rights. Others say they have medical conditions that prevents them from wearing masks.
This latter argument makes for a sticky conversation for business owners, according to Brotherton.
”There are people [ that don’t want to wear masks] that claim the medical exemption, and of course we can’t talk to them about their medical history, but it is a requirement. We can’t serve them without a mask,” Brotherton said.
When the county face mask ordinance went into effect, Arlene Alen, executive director for the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce said that the initial fear was that people would refuse to wear them, but the state mandate bolsters confidence in business owners.
“Some people initially did [not wear a mask]. It’s easier now that the governor says No Mask, No Service, to say, look we’re part of JeffcoCARES. We do all of these things to keep you safe. You have to keep us safe too,” Alen said.
Nelsons’ approach to de-escalating situations that arise over masks is to offer alternatives such as curbside to-go orders.
“We just try to spin it in a positive way instead of telling them to get out,” Nelson said.
What of criticism that the masking order forces business owners to police their own customers?
“I suppose you could look at it that way,” Nelson said.
“I don’t because I sell liquor for a living. I have to ‘police’ my customers to make sure they don’t drink too much and technically we have to ‘police’ our customers to make sure they are wearing shoes when they come in.
“I see the point, but it really comes down to nobody wants to be the bad guy,” Nelson said. ” To me, this is just another part of doing our job.”
Reporter Ken Park can be reached at [email protected].