How shops and restaurants in southeastern Connecticut are handling the latest CDC mask guidance

Aug. 7—The Book Barn has gone through three phases of signage during the COVID-19 pandemic, assistant manager Sara Maurice said Thursday at the downtown Niantic location, walking to the back entrance to show examples.

Taped over an older sign was a pink sheet reading, “To all of our Guests, With the rise in the Covid-19 Delta Variant, we are asking for your help in stopping the spread of this virus. This means that ALL VACCINATED AND UNVACCINATED ADULTS AND CHILDREN should wear masks indoors while shopping at the Book Barn. This is a safety measure for both our team and you, our guests. Thank you for your help, From the Book Barn Staff.”

Under that sign was a larger one that said beginning May 19, people who are fully vaccinated “need not mask up!!!!” Maurice peeled off that sign and flipped it over, showing the original sign listing COVID-19 regulations, including “Wear your mask at all times.”

“It’s been really tough for us,” Maurice said. “There is no mandate. They’re not giving states very specific guidelines, so as a business, we’re left deciding: What do we want to do?”

Related story: Mask or no mask: not everyone sees it the same way

Book Barn has masks to give out for those who enter the store without one.

The used-books store changed its signage to reflect guidance the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released July 27, recommending that even fully vaccinated people “wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission.”

People then began to ask for clarification on what “public” means, including Ledge Light Health District’s director, Steve Mansfield.

He asked this question of Thomas St. Louis, epidemiologist with the state Department of Public Health, who responded that “public indoor spaces” is “generally used as a catch-all term for anywhere outside of your home where other members of the general public could be expected to be present. Those could be private businesses (e.g., grocery stores, restaurants, etc.) as well as municipal buildings.”

On Thursday, Gov. Ned Lamont signed an executive order allowing municipal leaders to require masks in indoor public places, regardless of vaccination status.

The governor said in a news release that he issued this order at the request of municipal leaders who wanted to return to earlier universal mask requirements, but he didn’t think a statewide mandate was necessary, as many towns “have achieved exceptionally high vaccination rates.”

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker announced Friday that effective Monday, the city would “require indoor masking at all establishments, such as bars, restaurants, theaters, and office buildings, regardless of people’s vaccination status.”

But Mansfield said he doesn’t expect municipal leaders in Ledge Light’s jurisdiction to follow suit.

He wrote to mayors, first selectmen and city and town managers Friday afternoon, “Uncas and Ledge Light Health Districts have no plans to suggest imposing local restrictions or mandates on capacity limits, mask mandates, etc. for our business communities, absent a statewide mandate.”

Mansfield told The Day he was unaware Lamont’s executive order was coming, but he thinks it’s safe to say that every municipal leader he knows of in southeastern Connecticut doesn’t plan on imposing restrictions, other than on their own municipal buildings.

“Any respiratory illness doesn’t respect town borders,” Mansfield said.

After Connecticut Restaurant Association Executive Director Scott Dolch read that Lamont would be issuing the order, he said his biggest concern is consistency and he’s “not a huge fan of municipalities making these decisions for public health.”

He said a restaurant owner could have one restaurant in Westbrook and one in Mystic, and differing policies could be confusing for customers.

Dolch said in light of the CDC guidance, a lot of restaurants already have asked customers to wear their masks until they sit down, which he noted isn’t as much of an ask as masking in retail shops.

As for staff, he noted it’s challenging for line cooks — “a grueling job in normal times” — to wear masks in a hot kitchen in the middle of summer. With the previous CDC guidance that vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks, Dolch said he saw an uptick in vaccinations.

Ali Formica, director of operations at Flanders Fish Market in East Lyme, said the restaurant had been letting vaccinated kitchen staff keep their masks down while customer-facing staff were still wearing masks. But since the latest CDC recommendations came out, she said all staff are now being asked to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.

She said the restaurant also has started asking customers to wear masks when they’re not seated, and purchased extra masks for those who aren’t prepared.

“It’s such a roller-coaster,” Formica said. “I feel like the discussions have changed week over week.”

Mask policies shared on signs, social media

Elsewhere in Niantic on Thursday, signs on the doors of some stores reflected the previous CDC guidance. One read, “Masks are optional as long as you are vaccinated,” while another said, “Please wear a mask if you are not fully vaccinated.”

Rachel Redding didn’t have any signs at the entrance to Coastal Gifts On Main but said she has no problem wearing a mask and wants customers to feel comfortable. Standing behind the plexiglass at the register, she noted that when a group of masked customers came in, she said she was vaccinated but asked if they would like her to put on her mask.

At Crystal Mall on Thursday, the signage situation varied from store to store. Outside the entrance to the Christmas Tree Shops and Bed Bath & Beyond, a sign said all employees are required to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status and customers are strongly encouraged to wear masks. Other entrances to the mall had no signs.

Many individual stores had no signs, while Special Occasions said “Please Keep Your Mask on Throughout the Store,” Zales said staff must wear masks and Icing said face masks are required for ear piercings.

Elsewhere in southeastern Connecticut, some businesses posted their mask policies and stances on Facebook in the days following the CDC’s shift.

“Delta wants to dance with everyone. Mask up friends. This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no fooling around! #staysafe #respectscience #evenifyouarevacinated,” Grace Your Home in Stonington posted July 30, complete with some music note emojis, referencing the Talking Heads song “Life During Wartime.”

Both Glaze Handmade in Stonington and The Eyeglass Lass in Olde Mistick Village posted guidance from Ledge Light on July 29, and noted they have required masks throughout the pandemic.

Alice in the Village and The Cloak and Wand in Olde Mistick Village, which share the same owner, acknowledged increased cases of the delta variant and said as of July 30, everyone is required to wear a mask when coming into the store.

The owners of 2 Brothers Pizza in Salem posted on Thursday that they would resume wearing masks inside starting this Monday.

“We are short staffed and with the numbers rising around us we can not chance the health and well being of the staff we do have (who have been working their butts off the entire summer),” they wrote. “It is not a decision we take lightly as the majority of us at Two Brothers are vaccinated. We kindly ask that our customers consider wearing masks as well when entering and moving about the restaurant.”

How health districts are handling masking in their offices

The directors of Ledge Light Health District and Uncas Health District both noted they changed their internal mask policies after the change in CDC guidance.

Mansfield said although Ledge Light has a very high vaccination rate, employees are now required to wear a mask when they’re not at their workstation or not able to socially distance. But, he said, “everyone pretty much wears a mask all the time here, even if they’re at their workstation. We’re used to it.”

Patrick McCormack of Uncas Health District said his office made the same decision. His recommendation to people in other offices is “they wear their masks in what’s considered a public area or a common area, if they’re going to come into contact with other employees,” but it would be appropriate to remove the mask when alone in an office or cubicle.

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