Here we go again.
For many small businesses owners and employees, Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s announcement on Friday that she would reinstate a COVID-19 mask mandate for public venues in Boston on Aug. 27 felt like déjà vu.
Many feared the move would discourage customers from patronizing their already-struggling businesses. Others worried it might prompt more offices downtown to delay a return to work. Yet some were relieved to have a higher authority step in at a moment when the Delta variant poses new risks to their staff and patrons. All told, the return of the mask mandate was a potent reminder that COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon.
For months, Labor Day weekend has been a goal post for retailers and venue owners, circled on calendars as the moment life in Boston would get back to normal. College students would return. Offices would reopen. Schools would resume in-person, providing desperately-needed child care for working parents. And the added unemployment benefits that have contributed to labor shortages would expire.
The Delta variant is clearly upending those plans.
Now a mask mandate could send a “troubling” message to consumers that may deter them from dining out and shopping in stores, said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. Many small businesses that survived the pandemic so far are still struggling to meet the costs of labor and inventory, Hurst said, and any loss in revenue could cripple them.
“More government restrictions, that cuts down on potential sales, potential consumers coming back,” Hurst said. “There’s going to be another wave of small business failures beyond what we’ve already seen based on what happens this fall.”
He said policies like this force businesses to police their customers, which risks turning shoppers against them. And with the Commonwealth having one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, he said, Boston should trust businesses and individuals to make decisions for themselves.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” said Bob Luz, the president of the Massachusetts Restaurants Association. “Massachusetts has 4.4 million vaccinated residents … I’m not sure how a mask mandate changes the minds of those who won’t get vaccinated and won’t wear a mask.”
But some were less fazed at Janey’s decision, seeing it as a necessary move to help protect patrons and staff.
At Estragon Tapas Bar in the South End, staff have been wearing face coverings all summer and about half of customers have been wearing one when they walk in, according to co-owner Lara Egger.
Egger said she would not have expected a renewed mask mandate in Boston two months ago, but now, it comes as no surprise.
“If that’s what we need to do to slow the spread and keep people safe, it’s totally fine,” Egger said. “I think we’d all like to be past this and nobody really wants to wear a mask, but it’s a small compromise.”
Dion Santiago, a manager at COS, a clothing store on Newbury Street, said he’s also seen a 50–50 split on mask-wearing among customers. The mandate makes sense, he said, especially because he’s observed more “careless” behavior around public health over the last few months.
“I think a [vaccine] card mandate would be effective, too,” Santiago said. “Because it would make people be a little bit more aware of what they’re doing, where they’re going.”
Still, those who work in the nightlife industry said it may be difficult to put the genie back inside the bottle when it comes to patrons. Clubs, bars, and dance halls only re-opened in May, as broader state and city mask mandates were ending. Now it’ll likely be a challenge to get club-goers to don a mask on the dance floor, said BREK.ONE, a local DJ who spins for the Celtics and other venues throughout the city.
“In nightlife it’s been essentially back to 100 percent normal, no masks or anything,” he said, and he’s been booked solid for weeks, “busier than what I would call normal.” Even so, he’s been wearing a mask again at venues since the Delta variant has become a factor, and canceled a booking in Orlando this weekend due to the severe spike in cases in Florida.
BREK.ONE said he’s not opposed to a mask mandate if it keeps venues open. But he’s glad he’ll be in the DJ booth, and not tasked with policing mask-wearing, if that policing happens at all.
“I’m curious to see how this is enforced on a dance floor,” he said. “People are already a little rowdy without a mask. You try to factor in a mask and alcohol and it will become a challenge.”
The biggest challenge, perhaps, is knowing what all this portends. Will the Delta variant fizzle out here as it has elsewhere in the world? Or will there be more restrictions, such as capacity limits? And what needs to happen to have the mask mandate lifted?
“The message needs to be that you have to get vaccinated,” said Luz. “We’re doing all this for the people who have decided not to.”