HELENA — As the number of COVID-19 cases in Lewis and Clark County continues to rise, it’s falling to business owners to decide whether they will again ask their customers to wear masks.
The CDC updated its masking recommendations last month, advising that fully vaccinated people again start wearing masks in indoor public settings In areas of “substantial or high” COVID transmission. That now includes Lewis and Clark County.
The Painted Pot in downtown Helena hasn’t changed its policies, because they never stopped requiring their customers to wear masks.
“We thought about it when people started getting vaccinated in the spring and our numbers started dropping, but because the summertime tends to be very kid-heavy and we run summer camps with a lot of kids that can’t be vaccinated, we decided it was easier to make sure everybody wore a mask,” said owner Brianne Harrington.
Harrington said the Painted Pot is in a different position than other businesses because their customers are spending long periods inside working on pottery. She said they have received some backlash for their position, but less than she initially expected – and she said other customers have been grateful for them continuing to require masks.
Just next door is Montana Book Co., where a sign at the entrance says “Got a mask? Please wear it.” Co-owner Chelsia Rice says they put it up about a week ago, as COVID cases spiked. While they haven’t required masks yet, she said they are closely watching the statistics as they debate whether to take additional steps for safety.
“I think that we are specifically concerned about infection rates in children at this point; that’ll be a turning point for us,” said Rice. “We are carefully watching what happens in our state with regards to people who cannot get vaccinated.”
Montana Book Co. kept requiring masks for several months after the statewide mask mandate was lifted. Rice said they had to deal with some angry customers unhappy with their mask policy, and that responding to those issues was stressful for her employees.
Last year, the decision to require masks came from the government, but that’s less likely to happen this year. Gov. Greg Gianforte has frequently said he favors leaving COVID precautions to “personal responsibility” rather than mandates. The Montana Legislature also approved House Bill 257, which removed local health departments’ power to enforce their own mandates.
Business owners say that change has put more pressure on them.
“It’s much harder as a private business to have to be basically thrown to the wolves and be the one on the front line talking to customers about why it’s still necessary, why we’re not out of the woods,” Harrington said.
“Each of us gets to do business as we choose, which I appreciate, but it also is hard to do business without guidance,” said Rice.
MTN also spoke to a number of other Helena business owners who didn’t want to comment publicly for this story. None are requiring masks for customers yet, though several are having their employees mask up.
Many said they have thought about tightening their mask policies, but that it would be a lot of pressure on their employees to enforce if they make it a requirement. Several also said that they have seen many more people wearing masks in recent weeks, even without being asked.
Rice said she’s seen a variety of different approaches from her fellow business owners, and that each has to do what they feel is right for their individual situation.
“Employees and employers are doing the best we can,” “We just ask people to be kind while we navigate this really difficult time in history.”