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Trust the science, but maybe not the humans: Retailers, patrons ponder lifting of Mass. restrictions

Marian Klausner owns the Shake the Tree gift shop in the North End. She said it makes her nervous to know she and her staff will probably encounter people who choose not to be vaccinated.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

After more than a year of pandemic restrictions, the state’s new, accelerated timeline for reopening has brick-and-mortar businesses and their patrons scrambling to recalibrate their rules and expectations for the summer. After thinking they’d ease back into a sense of normalcy by August, many feel like a Band-Aid — or rather a mask — will be ripped off as of Memorial Day weekend.

“It’s like, just slow down. What’s the rush?” said Michelle Barrett, owner of the Kind Goods gift shop in Maynard, who said she was taken aback by Governor Charlie Baker’s swift change of course, thinking he’d choose to drop occupancy restrictions first or wait for the state to reach a higher vaccination rate before unmasking the public.


“It just wasn’t considerate,” she said of the new plan. “I don’t want a face tan line as much as the next person, but I didn’t go through all this trouble to suddenly have anxiety about my store.”

Some business owners are extending the requirement for masking indoors beyond May 29, knowing that young children and others are still unvaccinated and could be at risk. There are concerns about whether altercations may arise over masks. And many are conflicted: They believe in vaccines and want a return to normalcy, but are wary about how much they can trust the public.

When Marian Klausner, owner of the Shake the Tree gift shop in Boston’s North End, learned that Baker was planning to lift all restrictions on businesses as of Memorial Day weekend, her phone started buzzing nonstop.

Since the start of the pandemic, she has been in a group chat with a dozen other local women who own boutiques. The news sparked a frenzied string of messages asking how to handle the new policies.

“Everyone was saying: ‘What do we do? What do we do?’ ” Klausner said.


Klausner said it makes her nervous to know she and her staff are likely to encounter people from out of state who choose not to get the vaccine. “I think it’s a little scary, but I do feel like there has to be an end to this. I have to trust the science,” she said. “At the very least we’re going to put up a sign saying we’re fully vaccinated.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to lift mask requirements was widely seen as an abrupt change in policy for US businesses. It has left retailers lurching as they shift guidelines for both patrons and staff. Many big chains, such as Trader Joe’s, Walmart, Costco, Starbucks, CVS, and Target, are already ending their mask requirements for shoppers. Some, like Trader Joe’s, are keeping their employees masked, while Walmart is allowing employees’ faces to go uncovered.

But Mark Perrone, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union president, argues that after asking essential workers to show up and support the public throughout the pandemic, it would make sense for the public to continue to wear masks indoors until 80 percent of the population is vaccinated, to keep workers safe. Right now, only 38 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.

Throughout the last year, retail workers “have been verbally abused, and in some cases physically abused by the customers,” Perrone said in an interview with CNN. “So now, we have a situation where you really don’t know when somebody has been vaccinated or not, and you’re going to change these workers from the mask police to the vaccination police.”


Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said it could take longer for some mom-and-pops to establish rules of their own, as compared to the big chains.

“It might depend on what kind of small business you are,” Hurst said. “I think they’re just going to play it by ear, week by week.”

Dan Fitzgerald, cofounder of Heartbreak Hill Running Co. in Cambridge, started planning how the retailer would organize its first outdoor group run since the start of the pandemic. The same day he was mapping out the logistics, Baker announced that most remaining pandemic-era restrictions would be lifted on May 29.

“All of our worries went out the window,” he said. “We’re so excited . . . now we don’t need to write a page of rules for people to come to our runs.”

Fitzgerald said his company, which operates stores in Cambridge, South Boston, and Newton, will remain cautious about mask-wearing inside. While he doesn’t think his staffers should wear masks when in the store by themselves, he wants them to keep one handy, since they will not know the vaccination status of the customers.

“All of the staff is vaccinated, but I think we should err on the side of caution,” he said. “It is out of respect for the customers.”


Others, like Barrett of Kind Goods, are taking an even more cautious approach. She will keep wearing a mask and ask customers to do the same in the store until she feels comfortable. She’ll have a box of masks at the door for people who might no longer be bringing their own.

Barrett said that after posting her decision to keep masks in place on social media, she received “unabashed support” from her patrons, and she hopes that carries over to in-store conversations once restrictions are lifted statewide.

“So far people have been really good about it,” she said. “It’s also a store called Kind Goods, so I don’t know if that offers me some protection from unpleasant conversations, but I like to think that it does.”

Other venues are opting to keep occupancy limits in place.

The Norman Rockwell Museum, in Stockbridge, probably won’t go up to full capacity on May 29 because its small galleries will still need to have enough space to accommodate unvaccinated visitors, including children, said chief executive Laurie Norton Moffatt.

“It’s a wonderfully liberating feeling,” she said of the state’s restrictions being lifted, “but the practicality of administering it still has some nuances that we need to understand.”

The new guidelines are also forcing parents with young children to shift their approach to patronizing local businesses.

Carolynn MacKay, a mother of four children under 8 in Milton, said the guidelines are making her rethink family outings. “It makes me sick and anxious,” she said. MacKay and her husband are vaccinated, but their kids are not, and she no longer feels comfortable going out to dinner or even to the grocery store, which she had begun taking her children to as infection rates dropped.


“When you’ve been locked in the house, a supermarket is a pretty magical place for a kid,” she said. But when restrictions end, she’ll opt not to venture out with them. Knowing people may be in the store unmasked and unvaccinated makes her uncomfortable.

“We’re avid rule-followers” who have steadfastly masked up, she said, knowing that face coverings protect others as much as they protect the wearers. Now, despite knowing that vaccination levels are high in the state, she feels as though there’s a risk in putting her faith in the public.

“I totally trust the science,” she said. “The thing I don’t totally trust are humans.”

Katie Johnston and Jon Chesto of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos. Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8 and on Instagram @anissagardizy.journalism.