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R.I. lifted mask mandates, but not all businesses are ready for it

A fear of being “cancelled” by angry customers leaves businesses to quietly decide whether to require masks or not

Westminster Street in downtown Providence comes back to life. And people are unsure if they should wear a mask or not.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Islanders have hardly exposed their bare faces in public for more than a year. A sudden loosening last week of federal health guidance on facial coverings has given fully vaccinated Rhode Islanders a new choice to make, and business owners a new burden to bear: Should they ask customers to mask up inside their stores?

After 15 months of signs in storefronts reading “masks are required,” not all business owners are quite ready to let customers in without one.

Instead, just two days into the new world of unmasking, many Rhode Island business owners are in an awkward phase, trying to appease both customers who want to keep wearing masks and those who are ready to take theirs off.

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Seven Stars Bakery in Providence sent an email to customers saying they will go maskless for all customers who are fully vaccinated — but not until June 1. They also plan to start to roll out in-cafe dining for the first time next week.

“Some of you will really like this change and others will think we are either moving far too quickly or far too slowly,” they wrote in their email. “Please understand... As you can imagine, being in a customer-facing role this past year has been challenging, stressful and at times unpleasant. We hope you agree that waiting a couple of weeks is a relatively small sacrifice to help make their transition easier and safer.”

Moniker Brewery in Providence posted on their Facebook page Wednesday, saying they wish to “remain cautious as things reopen.” Their staff weighed in, and customers will still have to mask up if they are not seated.

Bywater, a restaurant in Warren, Rhode Island, said on Facebook that guests and employees will still have to wear masks. The Hype, a health food store in Glocester, Rhode Island had a similar update.

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A group of young people all kept on their masks on Westminster Street in downtown Providence on Wednesday.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Kristen Regine, a business professor at Johnson & Wales University, said she “ripped the bandaid off” fast for herself: She stopped wearing her mask in public settings as soon as it was allowed on Tuesday. But for businesses, the decision isn’t as straightforward.

“Not all small businesses want to put out a big announcement about being maskless or keeping mask policies on their social media. It’s still very divisive,” she said, noting that people working out at gyms and fitness centers be more apt to take their mask off. “Some business owners might think it’s like picking a side.”

On Tuesday, Providence Donuts posted a photo on Instagram of donuts in the shape of the words “STAY MASKED,” adding “in our bakery.” People flooded the comment section with their reactions.

“I wish that businesses had more freedom to make the choices that were right for them all along,” wrote one commenter. “I totally respect that you’re doing what’s right for you all right now! I’ll be masked up in line for some donuts for sure.”

Others left eye-rolling emojis, thumbs down, or pointed remarks: “Government says it’s ok. But thats not good enough for a donut shop.”

Regine said talking about masks in some areas of social media is like “mixing politics with business” and can be just as damning as “not separating church and state.”

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“People are thinking, ‘I don’t want to be cancelled,’” she said.

Some Rhode Islanders aren’t ready to leave their mask at home.

“I went to a few establishments today (coffee shop and sandwich shop). Since I didn’t know whether each had a mask requirement, and didn’t care to find out, I just wore the mask while inside,” said Daniel Burgoyne of Lincoln, R.I.

Many big box retailers started dropping their mask policies for customers by Tuesday afternoon. However, the guidance for their own workers varies: at CVS and Macy’s employees must still wear a mast, but at Best Buy, Target, and Home Depot they do not.

Grocery stores, where many essential, frontline workers have had to enforce mask wearing for customers during the pandemic, have varying situations. Customers at Whole Foods, Walmart, and Walgreens no longer need masks. Some employees of those same stores need to keep them on.

The new CDC guidance on mask wearing trusts that people will be honest about their vaccination status. Knowing who is fully vaccinated and who is not is hard, but not necessarily “undoable,” wrote Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, on Twitter recently. He pointed out infection levels were still high across the country and the majority of Americans who became eligible for a vaccine on April 19 won’t be fully vaccinated until approximately June 15. He urged business to wait to lift their mask requirements.

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“Either do hard work of figuring out who is vaccinated (vaccine passports),” he wrote. “Or wait four weeks.”

Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician at Rhode Island Hospital and associate professor in the department of emergency medicine, tweeted recently that she would continue to wear her mask in public settings until vaccination rates increase.

Regine said that “it’s still early.” “People aren’t shaming individual consumers for not wearing one,” she said. But for businesses, “they are going to just let this moment ride out. And keep going, as business as usual.”


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.