New Brunswick’s mask mandate ended Monday, but at the Fredericton YMCA, the rule is still in effect for 90 minutes a day.
From 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. each day, masks are still mandatory when patrons walk around – a policy that came about from listening to the concerns of members who are still uneasy about catching COVID-19 in public spaces, according to Darcy Delaney, president of the Fredericton YMCA.
And for patrons who come in without a mask during that time, he said they are given one for free.
“We really think of it as a low-impact accommodation that’s going to potentially save lives,” Mr. Delaney said. “And that, to us, is really what’s most important.”
As provinces end the last of their COVID-19 public-health restrictions, small businesses are preparing for an influx of customers and a new challenge to navigate a world where, by and large, the rules are up to the businesses themselves – and many are choosing to keep masks as a valuable tool for employee safety and customer comfort.
Ever since mask mandates became important measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, they have been a considerable source of tension between small business staff trying to enforce the rules and many customers who didn’t want to follow them. Now, small-business operators say, there are plenty of customers who are still worried about catching the virus and are concerned that lifting mask mandates will make spaces less safe.
Some businesses are trying to thread the needle by setting aside mask-only times in their schedule.
In Nova Scotia, where provincial mask mandates end this weekend, Halifax’s Neptune Theatre will keep restrictions in place one day a week for playgoers. Lisa Bugden, general manager of Neptune, said the theatre will continue asking for masks and proof of vaccination on Sundays, as well as maintaining one seat of separation between each group of audience members.
“Our Sunday patrons have said that this is what’s made it possible for them to come back to theatre, and that they’re really not ready to unmask and share their armrest with somebody they don’t know,” Ms. Bugden said.
She said the theatre is working on getting a legal opinion to support these measures and a continuing mask requirement for staff.
Whether to ask staff to continue wearing masks – or allowing staff to do so at their own discretion – is an important consideration for many small businesses.
Edmonton’s Fleisch restaurant was the first in Alberta to require proof of vaccination and often kept a mask mandate in place even when provincial orders were relaxed between waves of COVID-19 outbreaks.
Owner Katy Ingraham said a key consideration for her was always the health and safety of her staff, who work in an environment where customers need to take off their masks to eat and drink.
But now that Alberta’s restrictions have ended, and her staff have had a chance to get vaccinated and boosted, Ms. Ingraham said she’s armed staff with respirators and everyone is now comfortable with customers who are unmasked at all times.
“You’re sharing air for hours at a time with other people,” she said. “A cloth or a surgical mask for somebody who is working in a restaurant isn’t going to do them any favours.”
Ms. Ingraham said she and her restaurant staff have often endured abuse from people who disagreed with masks and vaccination orders. She said that also contributed to her restaurant’s decision to drop its mask mandate for customers.
“At this point, we feel like it’s more of a risk to have a belligerent, violent person show up because they don’t agree with our safe practices, than it is for our staff to be at risk of contracting COVID at work,” she said.
While some small businesses decide on their new rules, others say they are content to go with the flow.
Stefania Capovilla, owner of an Ottawa beauty salon and board member of the Ontario Professional Hairstylists Association, said hairstylists she’s spoken with say they are going to follow their customers’ leads when it comes to masking during appointments.
Ms. Capovilla said that in Ontario, where hairstyling is a licensed trade, practitioners have got used to protective measures for their customers, and staff will monitor factors such as the level of community spread. Ontario government data show no outbreaks have been linked to personal-service settings in the past 90 days.
“We’ve been doing this for a couple of years, and we have a good sense of what works,” Ms. Capovilla said.
And for some small businesses, the expiration of mask mandates has been a boon.
Shawn Raymond, a personal trainer in Leduc, Alta., said the end of his province’s restrictions earlier this month has triggered a big return of his customers, some of whom stayed away out of caution, and others who stayed away because they didn’t like the restrictions.
Mr. Raymond said he was working four or five hours a day while restrictions were in effect, and now he is up to 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, just to keep up.
“I physically can’t take anyone else,” Mr. Raymond said. “I’m actually at a point where I now have to turn away potential clients because I’m just that booked up.”
He said the first group sessions after restrictions lifted were refreshing for him because he saw supporters and detractors of masks and vaccines talking honestly about the rules and trying to understand each other’s points of view.
Still, in addition to stepped-up cleaning during the pandemic, he said he has taken one additional precaution to deal with the virus: a requirement that clients sign a liability waiver.
“Basically stating, if they had any signs or symptoms and they came into a session and I was then found positive ... they would have to make up the difference for the lost sessions I would have because they gave me COVID,” he said.
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