When Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the state mask mandate would end March 31, he said that businesses and organizations and schools could make the decision to keep requiring masks—or not. While hoping the end of the Covid-19 pandemic is near, local shop and restaurant owners are in a difficult place trying to require customers to wear masks when some people bristle and leave when asked to wear a mask properly without their noses exposed.
Mayor Butch Berry said he supports the city passing a mask mandate and has been in close contact with the Arkansas Municipal League to get input on the best language for the regulation.
“It will be on next week’s meeting agenda,” Berry said. “I will be presenting an ordinance similar to the one in Rogers.”
The mask issue has been trying for store and restaurant owners and employees, said a longtime downtown merchant who asked not to be named.
“People taking sides on this politically is unfortunate,” she said. “This isn’t a political issue; this is a health issue. We have had shop owners telling people to take their masks off, that they don’t have to wear one. I feel it has caused a bit of a divide. It is just so tight downtown with people’s feelings. Everyone is tired of the pandemic. They want it to be over. People are so impatient in this country. In only a couple months, nearly everyone will be vaccinated.”
The shop owner said she has nightmares about people coming into the shop without masks. “To find employees brave enough to deal with these tourists, and keep themselves and everyone else safe, is really hard,” she said.
LaMont Richie-Roberson, owner of Quicksilver Gallery, said it was helpful previously for businesses to be able to say that masks were required by order of the governor.
“Though of questionable enforceability in places other than bars and restaurants, it gave us something to back up our own mask requirements,” he said. “When the governor lifted it last week, I noticed a quick–and an unwelcome-–change. More people on the street were not masked, and it seemed more had to be reminded to put their mask on when walking in our shop. Most complied, but a few turned around and walked back out, one loudly proclaiming that, ‘He lifted it yesterday.’”
Richie-Roberson hopes the city adopts a mask mandate and does it more than once, if necessary, because of a proposal by the Arkansas Senate last week that would eliminate any mask mandates “in place as of the effective date.”
“While it speaks specifically of the state mandates, the language is ambiguous enough to include local ones, as well,” he said. “My suggestion is to pass a local mandate now and then, if the proposal goes into effect, pass it again the day after. The bill in the legislature only applies to existing mandates.”
Joe Zickmund, co-owner of The Roxy, said he wants customers to be comfortable in the store and decide for themselves whether or not to wear a mask.
“My understanding is the governor relaxed the mask mandate to make it optional,” Zickmund said. “My store is big. Usually, people can easily maintain six-foot distance. If someone comes into our store with a mask, that is fine. If someone comes into our store without a mask, that is fine. Comfort is paramount.”
Morgan Haney, who co-owns Mojo’s Records and the B-Side Café on Spring St., said they are seeing very little push back from customers.
“We will continue to require masks inside until the CDC has a further recommendation,” Haney said. “We have a lot of signs up that help. It helps that all our seating for eating is outdoors. People have to wear masks while ordering and take them off while eating.”
She said they might have it easier than restaurants with indoor seating. And while they have worn and required masks throughout the pandemic, Haney said the requirements put small business owners in awkward situations at times.
The Lady Bug Emporium has a sign on its door requiring customers to wear a masks.
“If they don’t have one, they are asked to leave,” Manager Jerry Shurte said. “We have had a lot of people arguing with us it was unconstitutional. And they’re pulling it again. They tell me the mandate is ended. I say that this is private business and you are required to wear one if you want to shop inside. Some shops are not requiring it, but we have been stringent on it. It helps us, our customers, and the business. All these shops have a limited number of employees. You get one sick and you have to shut down.”
Shurte said their shop owner, Jim Jordan, is supportive of mask requirements.
“He is all for it,” Shurte said. “We have all had our first vaccination shot and will soon get the second. We will still require masks after that. I wish more stores would support wearing the masks.”
Debbie Davis, owner of the Shoppes at Fleece and Flax, plans to keep the mandate as long as it is recommended by the CDC.
“Most of my customers have complied,” Davis said. “There have been a couple of people who have tried to come in without a mask. But as soon as I ask them, they usually put them back on. Anything that keeps us safer is good to do for the city. I’m a former school principal, so dealing with a thing like that doesn’t bother me. It is just a matter of following the rules.”