Many businesses in Arizona on Thursday said they would continue to implement safeguards including mask requirements and social distancing even as Gov. Doug Ducey gave them the OK to stop doing so.
The governor’s order to lift remaining restrictions intended to stem the spread of COVID-19 allows businesses to decide how to proceed. Most of those contacted by The Arizona Republic indicated they would move forward with caution, keeping requirements and plexiglass barriers in retail locations, along with encouraging employees to get the vaccine.
Cities and counties across Arizona enacted mask mandates last summer as the state experienced a spike in cases. Those mask requirements are no longer enforceable, except for in government buildings and public transportation, according to the governor’s order, though some city leaders dispute that.
Businesses including Fry’s and Safeway, along with some small establishments, said they plan to keep the rules in place, however. Many Arizonans have gotten used to wearing masks and likely won’t discard them overnight, either.
But mask enforcement could be tougher without the shield of local mandates.
By and large, compliance has fallen to individual businesses, which can place cashiers, clerks and managers in tough spots as they try to enforce mask use. Those confrontations with customers who refuse to wear masks may escalate now.
“I predict that more people will feel that they have the right or the cause to not wear a mask,” said Cindy Dach, co-owner of Changing Hands Bookstore. Dach said Changing Hands will continue to require customers and employees to wear masks because “it’s our due diligence to keep our community safe.”
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How grocery stores will respond
Phoenix-based Sprouts Farmers Market will continue to require face masks at stores, with plexiglass barriers still the norm at cashier stations.
Bashas’, Food City and AJ’s Fine Foods, all part of Bashas’ Family of Stores, plan to keep current safety and sanitation protocols in place, including mask use, spokesperson Susy Ferra said. So, too, will Safeway and Albertsons.
Fry’s Food Stores, which operates 123 grocery locations in Arizona, said it will continue to require customers and employees to wear masks in stores until its front-line workers can receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The company also encouraged customers to practice social distancing and proper hand hygiene and to use alternative shopping methods, like delivery and curbside pickup.
Similarly, home improvement giant Home Depot will require customers to wear masks in its stores.
“We’ll also continue to follow CDC guidelines around cleaning and social distancing,” said Home Depot spokeswoman Margaret Smith in an email.
Gyms take different approaches
Gyms, which were a hotbed of controversy during the pandemic, are responding to Ducey’s announcement in different ways.
Some, like Mountainside Fitness, said they will immediately allow customers to work out without masks, while others are not going that far.
“Per today’s Executive Order, face coverings are no longer required inside Mountainside Fitness,” according to a Twitter post from the company, which previously sued over the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions. “We will resume full business operations.”
Life Time still will require customers to wear masks when entering and moving through a gym or getting spa treatments, but not while they are on exercise equipment, in saunas or steam rooms, spokeswoman Natalie Bushaw said. Children won’t have to wear masks while in the Kids Academy, she added.
Customers are still welcome to wear masks any time they like, and Life Time workers will remain masked, she said.
“We are going to move slowly because we want to continue to be cautious,” Bushaw said. “We want to make sure people still feel like they can come into Life Time safely.”
EoS Fitness will use a different strategy, the company said in an email to members.
“Effective today, masks are only required inside of EoS when 6 feet or more of physical distancing is not possible,” the company said. “Masks are not required when entering and exiting the gym, as long as physical distancing is maintained. With this, please feel free to continue wearing your mask in the gym if it makes you more comfortable.”
Fitness classes at EoS will continue to limit participants, and every other piece of cardio equipment will remain idle, the company said.
Businesses anticipate confrontations
Even after the governor’s order lifting restrictions went public on Thursday, patrons of Bull Shooters pool hall and sports bar in west Phoenix were still coming wearing masks, owner Mike Bates said.
But he said the governor’s announcement would ease pressure on businesses such as his when customers get upset about being told to wear face coverings. Bull Shooters has a capacity of 800 customers.
“We will offer the option for (customers) to wear marks,” he said, but employees still will be required to wear them.
Other small businesses will continue taking a strict approach to pandemic protocols.
Dach, of Changing Hands, said the store’s two locations in the Valley likely won’t reverse course until the majority of Arizonans are vaccinated.
The policy is likely to lead to more conversations with customers who don’t want to wear a mask but Changing Hands has the right to enforce its policies as a private business, she said.
Dach noted that though local mandates are no longer in place, the governor’s executive order explicitly says businesses can require masks and social distancing.
“This will give more permission for people to argue, which is exhausting, but we’re going to continue to follow the science and require masks,” she said and added that customers can choose where to shop based on their preference.
Garrick Taylor, interim president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said mask-wearing and social distancing are effective mitigation strategies and the chamber anticipates that many businesses will continue requiring masks and have other protocols in place to keep customers and employees safe.
He said Ducey’s announcement Thursday recognizes how far the state has come in terms of case numbers and vaccine distribution but “there’s still work to do, and we don’t want to lose momentum.” He encouraged customers to continue wearing masks and social distance.
“We know Arizonans want to get back to normal as soon as possible,” Taylor said in an emailed statement. “Wearing a mask, social distancing, staying home when you’re sick and getting your vaccination will help that day get here sooner rather than later.”
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Will there be issues with enforcement?
How difficult — or easy — it will be for businesses to enforce mask use without government mandates remains to be seen.
Even with city and county mask mandates, businesses have had little recourse if customers refuse to wear one.
An Arizona Republic analysis found that from March to December of 2020, few citations were issued around mask use or other COVID-19 restrictions, as law enforcement instead sought to educate people on the rules rather than cite them.
That approach left individual businesses largely responsible for compliance.
Sean Feeney, president of Bookmans Entertainment Exchange, which has two Valley bookstores, previously told The Republic that a customer spit at a door greeter who attempted to get the customer to comply. The company has faced three civil rights complaints from customers who alleged the mask policy infringed on their rights.
Police suggest employees call officers instead of engaging with customers who become aggressive. Businesses can file a complaint with officers, who then can cite people for trespassing or disorderly conduct and remove them from a store, but it appears businesses rarely go that route.
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said the city has heard from businesses about problems with customers who refuse to wear masks, some who have even escalated the situation to a physical confrontation. The city will do what it can to support businesses that continue requiring masks, she said.
“I’m concerned about both business owners and employees,” she said. “We will use what tools we have available to protect businesses and employees as they try to protect themselves.”
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Large employers keep protections in place for employees
The governor’s order lifting restrictions also means employers that don’t interact with the general public can decide whether to let employees go mask-less on the job.
Several said they weren’t ready to take that leap, however.
Intel, which this week announced a major plant expansion in Chandler that will add 3,000 jobs to the 12,000 already there, said it will continue to mandate precautions. Currently, most Intel employees are working from home, and that flexibility will extend until Sept. 1.
As more workers phase back to on-site shifts, safety policies will adjust, the company said in a statement. “In the meantime, we continue to apply safety precautions on-site, including social-distancing guidelines, required facemasks (and) health screenings at our lobbies.”
Intel also said it will strongly recommend vaccines and is offering up to four hours of paid time off so that employees can schedule their appointments.
Mask-wearing could remain the norm for many months, if not longer.
All companies surveyed in a survey released this week said they will or already require masks to be worn by staff, up from 57.6% who said the same in a similar survey last June. Both studies were conducted by outplacement-consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas and involved human-resources executives at companies of various sizes across the nation.
The survey didn’t ask businesses whether they would require customers to wear masks.
And while employee vaccines will be required at only a small fraction of businesses, a majority of human-resources executives said their firms will strongly encourage staff to get shots. Some companies will pay workers to do so, too.
Sprouts Farmers Market provides up to four paid hours for employees seeking to get vaccinated.
Other large employers are still deciding whether to alter their policies. Carvana, the fast-growing online seller of used cars that has expanded rapidly at its Tempe headquarters, said it didn’t have any information to share publicly for now.
Banking giant JPMorgan Chase, which employs 9,200 people across Arizona, hasn’t yet committed either, saying it continues to make decisions “based on local circumstances” while providing flexibility to individual business units to determine how and when their employees return to office settings.
“(We) continue to monitor and adapt based on local health-authority guidance,” the company said in a prepared statement.
Similarly, insurer State Farm, another large employer in the state, said its health and safety protocols will remain unchanged, including an “expectation” that employees will wear masks and practice social distancing.
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