Jeff Kane: Businesses in a COVID bind
I tire of our ongoing COVID house arrest. I squeeze what I can from distanced social contacts, but it’s not as juicy as the real thing. I’m in a high-risk category, so I take precautions seriously. I haven’t been to a restaurant since March and wonder which ones will still be around after the virus disappears. I do shop occasionally, but now only in uncrowded establishments where everyone wears a mask.
I’ve witnessed several people push back on masking, sometimes with hostility. I think, fine, don’t wear a mask. You’re increasing your chances of getting sick, but that’s your business. If you do contract the virus, you’ll enact a public service by moving us a notch toward herd immunity. But you also run the risk of being an asymptomatic carrier transmitting the virus to others. Do you care about that? Maybe you don’t think that will happen. Maybe you believe the plague is a hoax. Maybe you just don’t care. I hate to see this issue become one of law, since plain old manners ought to suffice.
There’s something else to think about. A few of my friends own local businesses. They ask customers to wear masks and maintain distance, but some refuse and even get belligerent. Here’s an example from real life:
Customer: “Make me! This is a free country. I can do what I want.”
Employee: “I’m sorry, but that’s the rule here. My boss says that if you don’t follow precautions I need to ask you to leave.”
Customer: “You can’t do that. That’s discrimination. You have to serve me.”
Wrong. An establishment can refuse to serve patrons who don’t wear shoes or shirts. It can show them the door for spitting or smoking. What it can’t legally do is deny service on the basis of sex, race, or disability — categories that don’t yet include refusing public health precautions.
My business owner friends have instructed their employees, many of whom are young and relatively inexperienced, not to confront anti-maskers. Though discomforted, employees usually serve them. Unsurprisingly, then, some masked customers complain to the Health Department that XYZ store allows unsafe conditions. The Health Department, committed to its goals, sends warning letters to the businesses, whose owners worry they might get shut down.
It seems you can’t win. Denying service causes bad vibes all around, and making exceptions results in no less trouble. Maybe, though, people who resist masking might behave a bit differently once they realize the issue isn’t only about them. It also involves the welfare of workers and the very existence of local businesses.
Jeff Kane lives in Nevada City.
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