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Despite an official order from Gov. Janet Mills requiring Mainers to wear face coverings in public to reduce the spread of COVID-19, many businesses in the Bangor area are letting customers without masks in.
An executive order from Mills on April 29 requires adults to wear face coverings when they are in places where it is hard to maintain social distancing.
A second order, issued May 29, requires businesses to make face coverings mandatory for employees and to post signs reminding patrons of the requirement to wear cloth face coverings in public. The May 29 order also allows businesses to deny entry or service to people not wearing face coverings.
“A violation of the Governor’s Executive Order on face coverings is by statute punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of $1,000,” said Lindsay Crete, spokesperson for the governor’s office.
Big box stores like Home Depot and Target with branches in the Bangor area as well as local businesses like the Rock & Art Shop and Frank’s Bake Shop & Catering have adhered to state guidelines by putting up signs informing customers that they need to be wearing face coverings in public.
But very few seem to be strictly enforcing Mills’ order to use face coverings inside their stores.
“Where they’re required by local mandate, and we’re asking customers to wear masks in our stores,” Margaret Smith, a spokesperson for Home Depot, said Friday. “We have not required stores to police local mandates, because it can be dangerous to put our associates in that position.”
Recent research, supported by anecdotal evidence, shows face coverings are effective in controlling the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, which is transmitted through respiratory droplets.
Cloth face coverings are different from surgical face masks or N-95 masks, which offer reliable protection to people who wear them from contracting the disease. Cloth masks offer little protection from catching the disease from someone who is not wearing a face covering, health officials have said, but can reduce transmission significantly if worn by an infected person who may or may not show any symptoms.
As many Maine businesses reopen, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah has issued consistent reminders about the importance of wearing face coverings in public. But wearing face coverings has become a polarizing and often partisan issue.
“Mask wearing has become politicized and businesses want to avoid being seen as taking one political side or the other so they don’t alienate any of their customers,” said Dr. Noah Nesin, Vice President of Medical Affairs at Penobscot Community Health Care. “And when masks become a definition of a political stance that becomes even more problematic but from a public health perspective, you know clearly the right thing is for everybody when they’re inside the store to be wearing a mask.”
The reason for the politicising of common-sense public health advice, Nesin thinks, is because President Donald Trump refuses to wear a mask while in public. On Thursday, Trump told the Wall Street Journal he thinks some people wear face masks to signal their disapproval of him, but Nesin disputed this claim.
“That’s not why I wear a mask. I wear a mask because I don’t — I want to do my part to prevent the spread of this virus,” Nesin said. “And I think that’s why most people wear masks. They’re not wearing them to make political statements, but because they want to be responsible for the well-being of people in their community.”
A study published Tuesday by University of Iowa researchers suggests that prior to May 22, between 230,000 and 450,000 cases of COVID-19 might have been averted nationwide due to face coverings.
“As countries worldwide and states begin to relax social distancing restrictions and considering the high likelihood of a second COVID-19 wave in the fall or winter, requiring use of face masks in public might help in reducing COVID-19 spread,” the study says.
The Kansas City Star reported last week that two hairstylists who had COVID-19 but no symptoms served about 140 clients, but since both hairstylists and all their clients were wearing masks, none of the 140 clients were infected.
Jaye Gross, one of the managers at Frank’s Bake shop on Main Street in Bangor, said the bakery is reminding customers that they should wear masks when they come in. He said people have complied for the most part and no one has openly refused to wear a face mask inside the store.
“We are asking people that come in to wear face coverings and offering curbside service to those who can’t or don’t want to,” he said.
In downtown Bangor, four neighboring businesses have varying face covering policies. The Briar Patch, a children’s bookstore, has stayed closed to the public and is only doing curbside pickup, according to a sign posted on the front window.
Josh Parda, owner of Central Street Farmhouse, a homebrewing supplies and education shop in downtown Bangor, has a chalkboard posted at the business that reads “You must be wearing face masks to enter.”
The farmhouse is not fully open to the public yet, and Parda sometimes has regular customers call ahead of time to let him know they’re coming in.
“I am really only trying to enforce it with people that are coming in to bottle wine,” he said. “I’m asking people to wear masks, but if people are in and out quickly and not touching anything it’s not a huge deal. I haven’t kicked anyone out, it hasn’t been an issue yet.”
When customers ask him, he says that he’s asking everyone inside the store to wear face coverings, which prompts them to leave if they don’t have one.
The Rock & Art Shop, which is next to the Central Street Farmhouse, also has signage requiring customers to wear face masks. The shop only lets five people in at one time, and has a box of masks for customers available on a table right in front of the entrance, next to a bottle of sanitizer.
At Bagel Central, a manager said the cafe does not require customers to wear masks, but she has observed that most do. The cafe is open for limited dine-in, and on a weekday afternoon, only a couple patrons sitting at the spaced-out tables were not wearing face coverings.
However, most local businesses can let in fewer patrons at a time compared to big box stores, most of which are not enforcing face-covering use.
Target, Walmart, Home Depot, TJ Maxx and Hannaford locations all often have staff members at entrances to ensure that stores do not let in more people than they are allowed to let in under social distancing guidelines. Some of these stores have even made their aisles one-way to avoid overcrowding in narrow spaces.
Still, in all of these stores, many customers routinely shop without wearing face coverings.
Hannaford spokesperson Ericka Dodge said Friday that the grocery store chain, like Home Depot, is not enforcing use of face coverings in stores.
“Our associates are not enforcing this with individual shoppers, but we strongly request our customers’ help in keeping our associates and customers healthy,” Dodge said.
“We have posted signage in our stores, taken out newspaper ads, sent email notifications and posted on our social media channels encouraging the use of masks and asking customers to wear face coverings in our stores.”
Nesin said a consistent refusal from stores early on might have prevented shoppers going in without face coverings, or at least made the decision to wear one less polarizing.
“One way to make it less confrontational is if everybody agreed that it’s going to be a requirement to enforce it,” he said. “If that was done people who are trying to make a statement by going in without a mask may be in the minority and hopefully would be ostracized by other people identified as not, you know, not helping to protect their neighbors.”
But as things stand now, most stores have people going in without masks.
When TJ Maxx on Broadway opened this week, long lines formed outside the store, but most people were not wearing masks while waiting to get in the store, which had associates letting people in to avoid exceeding the permissible store capacity of 100 shoppers.
Debra Tardiff was one of the few people that put on her mask before entering the store and took it off only when she returned to her car.
“I guess it’s just they don’t fear they’re going to get it,” she said, looking at the mostly young people lined up outside the store. “You just never know, whether you’re wearing them or not. But I’m going to take my precautions.”