‘We’re pretty uncomfortable.’ Charlotte businesses wary of enforcing tougher mask rules
As North Carolina tightens mandatory mask requirements statewide, Charlotte businesses are now required to take
As North Carolina tightens mandatory mask requirements statewide, Charlotte businesses are now required to take action enforcing that everyone wear one, or face possible fines, as COVID-19 cases and deaths rise.
Many Charlotte-area businesses already require workers and customers to wear masks. The new mandate, however, has some retailers concerned about staff having to enforce the state order.
Local restaurateur Paul Manley sees it as added pressure for businesses like his that are already following health guidelines because a few businesses continue to disregard the rules. “Masks work,” he said. “If people would follow what’s out there, we wouldn’t be in this position right now.”
North Carolina’s new state mask mandate begins at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 24. All workers and customers must wear face coverings.
Retailers with more than 15,000 square feet of interior space must designate an employee at each entrance to enforce face-covering compliance.
“We want someone at the door not just saying to wear a mask but limit 50% capacity as we go into the shopping season,” said Dr. Mandy Cohen during a news conference Monday when Gov. Roy Cooper announced the new executive order.
People also must wear a mask at restaurants, even while seated at a table, unless they are actively drinking or eating. And, people are required to wear a mask while exercising at fitness centers.
There still are a few exceptions, for children under age 5, people with behavioral condition or disability, or people who are actively eating or drinking.
Businesses not following the face-covering requirement could face fines of up to $1,000.
Lynn Minges, president and CEO of N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the new mandate isn’t really a change in policy but rather “a plea for people to do the right thing.”
“We don’t want to spread the virus and get shut back down,” Minges said.
Minges encourages businesses to post signs about the face-covering requirement at the front of the business. “We know that many restaurants won’t make it if the cases continue to rise,” she said. “We hope customers will put on masks.”
Changes at restaurants
North Carolina has been under a statewide mask mandate since June 26, requiring people to wear face coverings in some public places, like restaurants.
Manley, one of the owners of Ace No. 3 on Belmont Avenue, Sea Level NC in uptown and The Waterman Fish Bar in South End, said the new mask rule is confusing for diners and staff.
“We’re pretty uncomfortable making staff and management determine if someone is actively eating and drinking, or finished eating,” he said.
Manley’s three restaurants have about 100 employees. He said the virus has not been passed between his employees in the workplace. “If people don’t want to follow by the rules … then don’t come here,” Manley said.
Other restaurant owners are urging their peers to do the same.
“It’s not going to disappear until people do the right thing,” said Steve Casner, owner of Alexander Michael’s on West Ninth Street.
Casner added Plexiglas shields between booths, no bar seating and extra cleanings.
“I understand that we need to get this under control,” Casner said, “and it sure would be nice if people would just do it voluntarily and do the right thing.”
Changes at the gym
Life Time has seven fitness centers in North Carolina, including three in the Charlotte area and four in the Raleigh area.
“By now, most members are used to masks,” said Johnny Groff, Life Time area director in Charlotte. “For the others, it will be something that takes getting used to, and we have information available on our website to help them adjust.”
Life Time has a 400-page book for reopening that includes sanitizing surfaces and deep-cleaning clubs, installing hospital-grade air filters and spacing out equipment.
Since mid-May, Life Time clubs nationwide have been visited more than 21.5 million times with reported confirmed cases of 962, less than .004%, according to the company. Groff said contact tracing shows no evidence of transmission or origination of cases at Life Time centers.
“Life Time is not contributing to a rise or spread in coronavirus cases, and yet we — along with our industry as a whole — continue to be grouped inappropriately with others,” said Jeff Zwiefel, chief operating officer of Life Time.
North Carolina fitness centers were allowed to reopen in September at 30% capacity. Zwiefel and Groff noted that the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has not found reported clusters of cases at any fitness facilities.
“It is disappointing that gyms are getting singled out even with the precautions in place and the science and data showing that gyms are not where this is contracted or outbreaks are happening,” said Chris Narveson of Orangetheory Fitness in Charlotte.
Enforcing occupancy limits
Along with masks, businesses are required to watch store occupancy numbers.
Walmart limits store occupancy to 20% since April, said company spokesman Casey Staheli. And the company voluntarily began designating an employee at entrances on Nov. 14 as it did in the spring.
“Out of an abundance of caution, we have resumed counting the number of people entering and leaving our stores,” Staheli said.
The response to enforcing that everyone wear masks in stores has been positive, Staheli said.
“If a customer doesn’t want to wear a face covering, our health ambassadors notify a member of management, who will talk to the customer and try to find a solution,” he said. Customers also can shop online for delivery and grocery pickup, Staheli said.
Lowe’s Home Improvement developed a mobile app to monitor store occupancy and limit customer traffic since the spring, said company spokeswoman Jackie Hartzell.
Many retailers already have their own mask mandates for workers and customers. But masks have been a point of contention, leading to some violent confrontations across the country and in the Carolinas. On Monday, for instance, police said a grocery store customer pulled out a gun after being told to wear a mask in Myrtle Beach.
Mooresville-based Lowe’s began requiring workers to wear masks in May and customers followed in July. However, the company said at the time it would not allow its workers to enforce the company’s mandate due to employee safety concerns, the Observer previously reported.
Hartzell did not specify how stores will enforce the new order. She said free masks are available at customer service desks.
Other retailers like Home Depot have also required customers to wear masks since July.
“We’ve taken a number of steps to promote safety and social distancing like requiring masks, asking associates to complete daily health checks, installing Plexiglas shields, assigning social distancing captains and expanding curbside pickup,” said Home Depot spokeswoman Christina Cornell.
Grocers like Publix and Harris Teeter also require customers to wear masks or facial coverings in stores. Neither company responded for comment by Tuesday.
While Salisbury-based Food Lion has required workers to wear face coverings, customers have been encouraged to do so. On Tuesday, the company said in a statement to the Observer it is “fully abiding by all government mandates related to COVID-19.”
‘Please, wear a mask’
Andy Ellen, president and general counsel of North Carolina Retail Merchants Association., called it unfortunate that there have been hostile and fatal incidents because retail employees were doing their jobs when asking customers to wear a mask.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Ellen said retailers have incorporated social distancing procedures and worked to keep stores open, stock shelves and sanitize stores. Retailers also have implemented cleaning measures and added new shopping options like curbside service and delivery.
And, some have faced temporary shutdowns.
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These businesses can’t afford penalties because of customers not abiding by the order, he said.
“Please, wear a mask or face covering and be considerate if you are asked to do so when you are shopping,” Ellen said.