(This article originally appeared in The Guardian)
I spent a few weeks in Florida this past January, right in the middle of the pandemic. Florida has no mask mandate. Although there are city and county-level requirements, the state’s governor suspended all fines and penalties associated with non-compliance back in September. So people are free to do what they want.
I’m not going to argue whether this is good policy or not. I wear a mask, but no one is ever going to fully agree on whether governments should require their citizens to wear one. One thing is for certain: not having a state mask mandate makes it tougher for small businesses in that state.
Take, for example, Picos, a family owned independent restaurant located not in Florida but in Houston, Texas. As we know by now, Texas’s governor recently lifted his state’s mask mandate which means that citizens aren’t required to wear masks anywhere if they choose not to. However, the policy – like Florida’s – was left open for businesses to decide.
The owners of Picos continue to require their customers to wear masks. Most comply. But a few didn’t want to and were denied service. In retaliation, they threatened to report the owners to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, alleging that the company employed illegal aliens. The owners, of course, deny that they do this. But regardless of the facts, an accusation like this can create great headaches and even cause a temporary shutdown while the claim is investigated.
“It was just horrific,” Monica Richards, a co-owner of the restaurant, told the Washington Post. “People don’t understand unless you’re in our business what it felt like, how hard it was to go through everything we went through during Covid. For people to be negative toward us for trying to remain safe, so that this doesn’t continue to happen, just makes zero sense to us.”
The state’s restaurant association reports that a majority of their members say they will continue to require staff to wear masks and are split on whether they’ll require their customers to do the same. “This is a decision business owners are making, and it’s right for them,” a spokesperson for the association said in the Post article. “For a group that touts personal responsibility as something key to good stewardship of your business, it seems strange that they might criticize or throw insults at people who are trying to do just that. It’s alarming.”
Picos is not alone in this struggle. Again in Texas, according to the same report, one employee at a restaurant was berated and “called an absolute idiot” by a customer who was asked to wear a mask and a bartender at another restaurant required stitches “after he was hit in the head with a glass by a mask-less customer he approached”. Small businesses in Florida have also had similar challenges.
The lifting of the mask mandate in Texas has caused additional headaches for small business owners, many of them who are already struggling to navigate their way out of this pandemic recession. It’s created conflict. It’s created sometimes dangerous situations where employees must now be enforcers, a job responsibility no one signed up for. And without a state mandate to fall back on, these owners have no legal ground to fight those that refuse to comply. Do they want to fight their customers? Of course not. These small business owners just want to create a safer environment. But instead they find themselves creating animosity and clashes with the very people who want to spend money in their establishments.
People say they want to help small businesses, particularly the restaurant and retail store owners who have been devastated by shutdowns. So please, if you want to help, just wear a mask when they ask, whether you’re in Texas, Florida or some other state where masks aren’t mandated.
It’s not that big a deal. But it’s certainly a big deal for the business owners who rely on you for their livelihoods.