Mask limbo: Philly businesses and shoppers create their own rules in void of cohesive message

Some business owners are making their own strict COVID-19 mitigation rules, while others are planning for a “normal” summer.

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Diego Rivera cuts Michael Kane’s hair

Diego Rivera, owner of The King of Shave in Philadelphia, cuts Michael Kane’s hair. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

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At The King of Shave in Philadelphia’s Gayborhood, owner Diego Rivera wore a mask while cutting hair. One swivel chair over, barber Gene Gallagher did not. Both said they are fully vaccinated, but made the decision based on a personal level of comfort.

“I’ve got two kids and I don’t want to bring this to the house,” said Rivera, whose daughters are ages 9 and 10, and therefore not yet eligible to be vaccinated. A sign posted on the door and in front of a cutout of a young James Dean read: “Mask optional for vaccinated.” Rivera said that could soon change depending on how case levels progress.

As new information about the delta variant’s contagiousness — even among the vaccinated — emerged in recent weeks, new government masking recommendations rolled out. With Philadelphia, New Jersey, and the Centers for Disease Control urging, but not mandating, more mask-wearing indoors, some business owners are making their own strict mitigation rules, while others are planning for a “normal” summer.

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Exterior shot of The King of Shave, with mask advisory: “Mask optional for vaccinated.” (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

Rivera, in addition to weighing mandatory masking, is planning other adjustments as well. The barbershop will bring back a service that has been suspended, the shave, but only for those with proof of vaccination.

“We adjust for what the CDC says … and then we do what we assess is safe for us,” said Gallagher.

Having suffered through forced closures and business restrictions last year, some food businesses are also weighing when to exceed government recommendations this time.

“They’re just very nervous,” said Ben Fileccia, director of operations and strategy for the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association. On one hand, he said, hosts, servers, and managers faced verbal and sometimes physical abuse when enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing last year. On the other, Fileccia said restaurants fear another shutdown order and want to show they are not part of the spread at all costs.

Some restaurants are requiring their employees to wear masks again, he said. Others are contemplating what requiring proof of vaccination for workers and diners could look like, following the example of one high-end restaurant group with eateries in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Cornerstone Bistro, in Wayne, is one of the first restaurants in the region to take that step, announcing on social media that it would be moving to a vaccine passport model on Aug. 4.

Chef-owner Christine Kondra said she and her husband decided to start requiring proof of vaccination for indoor dining, rather than require all diners to wear masks.

“Our number one concern is our staff, and our guests, and our community,” she said.

After posting about the decision on Twitter and Instagram, the response has been mostly positive. But some people have unleashed abuse in the wake of the announcement, said Kondra, in social media comments and calls to the restaurant.

“People kept saying … I was a Nazi, this is how Nazi Germany started, we’re the Gestapo, we’re Kim Jong [Un], they will do everything in their power to make sure that we fail,” she said.

Amid such heated rhetoric, not every business owner wants to be an enforcer.

“We’re in a place that I feel we can confidently begin to move back to a state of normalcy for those who wish to do that,” said Heather Rice, owner of Amrita Yoga in Fishtown. “I personally don’t feel that I need to create any more separation or guidelines,” she said.

The yoga studio was forced to shut down in-person classes for portions of the pandemic and now offers a wider array of settings: online, outside, or in the studio, where masks are optional. In that way, said Rice, they have adapted their business to accommodate many people’s comfort levels regardless of what the current COVID-19 regulations are.

Even so, Amrita has created an online portal where clients can submit proof of vaccination if they wish, and Rice said instructors could choose to teach in-person classes only to people with proof of vaccination, but so far no one has requested that. Still, the disclosure portal is there, she said, in case it becomes more necessary.

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“If we could do it [in March 2020], we can continue to pivot now,” she said.

Diners and shoppers at Reading Terminal Market on July 29, 2021. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

Competing messages

As vaccination rates leveled off, coronavirus case counts in Philadelphia trended upwards at the end of July after declining for several months, per Department of Public Health data compiled by Billy Penn. The numbers are still “a small fraction of what they were before” said Philadelphia Health Department spokesperson James Garrow, but the rapid increase in the city and around the country prompted new masking guidance.

Philadelphia health officials are now “strongly recommending that everyone mask while indoors in places where you do not know that everyone is vaccinated,” as of a release dated July 22. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has since made the same recommendation.

Five days later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance for fully-vaccinated individuals, calling for mask-wearing in public, indoor spaces in areas of substantial or high transmission. That guidance leaves individuals to research local COVID rates on their own. Much of the Philadelphia region now meets that threshold, with Philadelphia, Montgomery, and Delaware counties rated as having substantial transmission by the CDC. All three counties in neighboring Delaware are also seeing substantial transmission, as are Burlington, Gloucester, Salem, Atlantic, and Ocean counties in South Jersey. Cape May County is experiencing high transmission of the virus.

The CDC’s guidance change flowed from new understanding of the delta variant, showing there is evidence that fully-vaccinated individuals can transmit the virus much more easily than previously thought.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health has responded differently, urging vaccination rather than restoring a mask mandate. Acting Secretary of Health Allison Beam announced the state would text 250,000 Pennsylvanians who received only the first dose of either Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, encouraging them to get the second shot. The two-shot vaccines are highly effective at preventing hospitalization due to the virus, including the delta variant.

“We want to make sure that folks are focused on getting vaccinated,” said Beam.

Some workplaces are boosting vaccination rates by creating mandates of their own, but decisions in the private sector have been split. President Joe Biden has been on both sides of the issue as well — mandating shots for federal employees, but reluctant to give an edict to members of the military.

Having these several competing messengers — and messages — can undermine the effectiveness of public health campaigns, said Gretchen Chapman, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, studying vaccine uptake and other forms of decision-making.

Another issue is when a regulation has “wiggle room” in it, for example not a black-and-white mandate, but, like the CDC’s most recent guidance, based on local conditions. “It’s easy to rationalize that the situation I’m in right now, the recommendation doesn’t apply here,” said Chapman.

In Philadelphia, after the mask mandate dropped earlier this summer, city mask surveillance showed mask-wearing dropped. Garrow said the city would consider another, more forceful regulation, “if things get significantly worse.”

During a recent lunchtime rush at Reading Terminal, staff were more likely to be masked than customers, though not all were. Around half of those milling around or purchasing food were masked, and almost no one wore masks in the crowded central seating area.

Monica Kras (left) and Margarita Khonin (right) in Reading Terminal Market on July 29. (Laura Benshoff/ WHYY) 

Rebecca Rousculp, who was in town from the Pacific Northwest to visit friends, said she was unaware of the local regulations but had never stopped wearing a mask even after receiving a vaccine.

“It never was a big deal in the first place … and if it can be helpful, why not?” she said.

Margarita Khonin, an oncology nurse living in Bucks County, sat and sipped a drink with a friend, both unmasked, while waiting for her husband to return with food. She said she wears personal protective equipment every day at work, but not otherwise.

“I feel like we were in it for so long,” she said, of the pandemic’s physical distancing and mask mandates. “It probably affected a lot of people’s mental health.” At this point, Khonin said, masking should be a personal decision, but “if they went and mandated it, obviously I’d be following guidelines.”

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