Even though the state is lifting its COVID mask requirements on June 2, shoppers and others better hold onto their face coverings for a while.
Stores, fitness centers, grocers, fast-food operators and others said Thursday they don’t know yet how – or if – they will change their mask and other COVID rules in light of Gov. Mike DeWine’s decision to lift the state mask requirement.
DeWine said Wednesday he would lift the restrictions June 2 for all establishments except nursing homes and assisted living facilities. But, he said businesses and schools can continue to set their own rules.
Meanwhile, new guidance was expected Thursday from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that vaccinated people can safely visit most indoor places without masks.
Retailers and others contacted by The Dispatch Thursday said they were still reviewing the policies.
“We didn’t know this was coming,” said Ohio Grocers Association President Kristin Mullins. “We’re still in the deciding and planning stages of what we’re going to be recommending and what members are going to be adjusting.”
Mullins said that while the Grocers Association likely will eventually provide guidelines for members, it will be up to stores to adjust their policies.
No immediate decisions
Most establishments reached by The Dispatch said they had no plans to immediately change.
“We serve millions of Americans every week and believe our policy of requiring associates and customers to wear masks in our stores has helped protect them during the pandemic, and we’re not lifting those measures at this time,” Walmart said in a statement, while leaving room for a change down the road.
“We are constantly evaluating our COVID-related health and safety protocols, including state executive orders and other mandate changes. We will continue to do so, keeping CDC guidance and local COVID statistics in mind.”
Late Thursday afternoon, Walmart updated its statement to say it was reconsidering its mask policies after the federal Centers for Disease Control issued relaxed guidelines.
“Based on the new information from the CDC this afternoon, Walmart is reevaluating its mask position,” the statement read.
Other retailers and consumer businesses said they expect to discuss the policies before the June 2 state change.
“It’s going to be on the list to discuss the next week or so,” said Julie Wells, general manager of the Bowling Place at Columbus Square on the Northeast Side.
“For now, we’ll continue to mask up and clean just as we’ve been doing.”
Bronson Bach, operations manager at the Esporta Fitness in Graceland Shopping Center, also said he expects Esporta to discuss its policies.
“I’m sure there will be an adjustment when the change takes place June 2, but we’re not sure yet what that will be,” Bach said. “Nothing has changed in our policies as of yet, but there are a lot of conversations about DeWine’s ruling.”
Mullins, with the Grocers Association, said some grocery stores are considering keeping mask requirements for employees, while others were considering taking the approach of “once it’s lifted, it’s lifted.”
Stores know that some customers won’t be pleased no matter what they do.
“We will have people unhappy if we continue to enforce it after June 2, we will have people unhappy if we don’t enforce it,” said Jennifer Williams, owner of the Clintonville grocery store Weiland’s Market.
The state and city health orders gave Williams’ local business “air cover,” she said, in enforcing COVID precautions, such as requiring shoppers to wear masks. With those state-level health orders expiring soon, she said she feels uncomfortable.
In terms of lifting other restrictions, she said time will tell what Weiland’s will decide to do. She said she wants to make the decisions based on data and facts.
“Will we leave the social distancing signs up on the floor? Yeah. Will the plexiglass shields come down at the cash registers? Maybe. Will we continue to sanitize a lot? Sure,” she said. “I think we’re just going to see.”
Some fast food restaurants are working on their own timeline, rather than the state’s date.
Donatos said it will review its processes and determine if it will open more dining spaces but has not yet made that decision.
“We owe it to our associates and customers to develop the best course of action in regards to all aspects of the lifting of the COVID-19 health order and will be taking our time to make thoughtful decisions over the coming days,” said Nikki Stead, vice president of People Services at Donatos.
White Castle will also evaluation its policies, said Jamie Richardson, a vice president at Columbus-based restaurant chain.
“Over time, I’m sure we’ll see different changes and modifications that will move us back toward where we were pre-pandemic,” Richardson said. “We don’t have an exact timeline at this moment.”
He added that Gov. DeWine’s announcement gives more flexibility to the company, which closed dine-in options at the start of the pandemic.
Richardson said employees said they prefer to focus on drive-thru or carryout, rather than having the “added anxiety” that comes with face-to-face interactions in the dining room.
“That’s been the model that’s helped us get through these past many, many difficult months,” he said.”
Many retail operations including Kroger, Giant Eagle, Wendy’s, Easton Town Center and Polaris Fashion Place, said they did have any information yet on the policy change or did not respond to Dispatch queries in time for this article.