CAMBRIDGE — For more than three years, the sign taped outside the door of the Million Year Picnic, a subterranean comic book shop in Harvard Square, was a sure sight.
“Protect yourself & others,” it declared in bold red typeface. “Masks are required upon entry.”
But as time wore on, “I kept having people show up, see the sign, or hear me say something, and walk back out again,” said Kelly J. Cooper, a clerk who helps run the store with owner Tony Davis. “I was like, ‘I can’t, in good conscience, continue to mess up Tony’s business this way.’ ”
So, despite Cooper’s multiple health conditions and her fear of re-infection after a bout of long COVID, the old sign was replaced in mid-June with one that reads: “Masks preferred but not required.”
“It kind of felt like giving in,” said Cooper, donning a white KN95 mask inside the store last week.
With this change, Million Year Picnic became another departure from the ever-thinning ranks of small businesses in the Boston-area that still require patrons to wear masks — a public health precaution that has largely fallen to the wayside as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have continued to decline.
The seven-day average of new COVID infections in Massachusetts as of July 11 was just shy of 80, compared to about 825 at the beginning of March 2022, when Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville lifted their citywide mask mandates for most indoor public spaces.
“The more that you feel you’re sort of alone and on an island,” said Davis, “the less comfortable it is.”
Since the mandates were rolled back, it has been left to private businesses to decide if they wanted their own masking requirements. Just a relative handful of small storefronts still do — including a bookstore in Somerville, a piercing studio in Central Square, Cambridge, and a Hyde Park acupuncture clinic. (Medical settings were the last spaces in Massachusetts to require masks, with most health care facilities and hospital systems dropping the requirements in May.)
The reasons for the holdouts are many. Some businesses fret over the costs of closing if there were an outbreak among staff. Others are following the preferences of their employees, or are trying to accommodate an immunocompromised clientele.
Regardless of the reasoning, proprietors say the decision to mandate masks — or not — has not been easy.
Take Gather Here, a craft store in Inman Square that dropped its full mask mandate in May after employees had grown weary of enforcing the rule with uncooperative customers.
“It was really emotionally exhausting for our entire team to argue with people seven days a week about masking,” said owner Virginia B. Johnson.
Now, the shop requires face coverings only on “Mask Mondays,” giving immunocompromised customers a designated time to browse the shop’s selection of fabrics and yarns, and leaving masking voluntary the rest of the week.
“We also had a lot of customers over the last year say how grateful they were that we were continuing to require masks even as the public health emergency was coming to an end,” said Johnson. “For the sake of those people, we didn’t want to fully just be like, ‘Oh, you’re all on your own.’ ”
All She Wrote Books, a feminist bookstore in Assembly Row, is considering a similar approach. Owner Christina Pascucci Ciampa has enforced a mask mandate since the store opened in July 2020, seeing it as an important part of building a business that prides itself on inclusion.
“I would feel that we would be not living up to that mission that we have if we didn’t have this,” she said.
But “masks are not getting any cheaper,” Pascucci Ciampa said, and supplying them for the many customers who don’t bring their own is adding up to a little more than $100 a week — “definitely a financial strain,” she said. She’s considering whether to roll the policy back, perhaps requiring masks only on busier days.
But like at Gather Here, many All She Wrote customers expressed appreciation for the continued mask requirement, Pascucci Ciampa said. This is the case, too, at Make & Mend, a secondhand craft store near Bow Market in Somerville. Positive feedback from customers has been the “main deciding factor” in keeping the mandate going, said owner Emily Tirella. She likes that customers see her store as “kind of an oasis” in a largely mask-free world.
Keeping a supply of masks for customers who don’t bring their own is an expense, said Tirella, but she has also seen how the requirement has kept a small threat from snowballing into a much higher cost. Recently, a staff member was exposed to COVID, and “if we hadn’t been all wearing masks in our shared spaces, I would have closed,” said Tirella.
“I can’t imagine going to Target and them being able to enforce it nowadays,” Tirella added, “but we’re on a smaller scale and we can, so we will.”
Masks were a controversial element of the pandemic, with many Americans contending that the mandates violated their personal freedom or that masks are ineffective at preventing infections. (Though the data have been a source of contention, many public health experts maintain that properly worn masks do help individuals minimize their risk of catching COVID.) The mandates often devolved into a culture war battleground that left retail employees in the crosshairs, with some workers subjected to screaming fits or even assaults.
To be sure, most of the stores that have maintained mask mandates are located in deep-blue quarters such as Cambridge and Somerville, where they are more likely to attract a mask-tolerant customer base, and many cultivate a progressive streak. Even at stores without mandates, it is not uncommon to see customers or staff members wearing face coverings. Some proprietors say these conditions have allowed them to continue their mandates with little drama.
“I haven’t had anybody have a tantrum about it,” said Nic Lawson, manager at Lucky’s Tattoo & Piercing in Central Square, which still requires masking in the piercing space, as much as possible anyway. “The piercing side is a little bit more up in people’s noses and mouths.”
Oren Pilinger, who runs the Boston Acupuncture Project in Hyde Park, also said that “no one has made a huge stink about” the policy. The clinic offers treatment in a group setting, so he keeps the mandate in place to ensure acupuncture is accessible to immunocompromised people and to try to avoid catching COVID himself.
“As the sole employee, if I get sick, it’s really hard for the business to continue,” said Pilinger. “Part of being accessible is staying open.”
And at Pandemonium Books and Games in Central Square, it was the decision to lift the mask mandate that produced a backlash. Owner Tyler Stewart looked to waste water tracking data to decide when it would be safe to lift the requirement. When he finally announced plans to roll it back on May 1, he got an email from a customer ”saying that I ‘had blood on my hands,’ ” he said.
Stewart said he does have concerns about immunocompromised customers, “but at the same time, we have to take the masks off sometime.”
Now, the question is when — if ever — this “sometime” will be for the remaining holdouts. At Make & Mend, at least, the answer is, no time soon.
“I feel like there’s just one catastrophe after another,” Tirella said. “It’s just easier to not have to make that decision.”
Back at Million Year Picnic — where an air filter system completes about four air replacements per hour — business has picked up since the store rolled back the mask mandate, said Cooper. Now, just a few customers wear one, she said, despite the sign and box of black surgical masks available for the taking at the front counter. She has stopped asking people to put one on.
”I just feel like the sense of community obligation — it makes me a little sad that it has eroded,” Cooper added. “Or maybe it was never there, and I just didn’t realize.”