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Businesses large and small reinstate mask mandates as COVID-19 cases surge

U.S. is averaging 100,000 COVID cases a day
U.S. is averaging 100,000 COVID-19 cases a day as hospitalizations spike across the South 08:33

Businesses large and small — from McDonald's and Home Depot to local yoga studios — are reimposing mask mandates on workers and customers as U.S. COVID-19 cases soar again. Bars, gyms and restaurants across the country are even requiring vaccines to even get inside the establishments.

After a largely mask-free summer, it's a reversal no one wanted to see, brought on by the fast-spreading Delta variant and new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But business owners and workers say they will do what they can to keep their doors open and not slow the economic gains of the last few months.

Delta variant surge becoming dire in Southeast, officials say 03:06

The Delta variant is a potentially lethal blow to restaurants already facing higher food costs, labor shortages and "sitting on 17 months of debt from closures," Erika Polmar, executive director of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, said. "We are in a world of hurt." 

About 90,000 restaurants and bars have shut down during the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association, which along with the IRC is lobbying for renewed government aid. The Restaurant Revitalization Fund distributed $28.6 billion among more than 100,000 eating establishments across the country before running out of funds by the end of June.

"Ahead of the curve"

"We've already been through the worst of the challenges when we shut down the indoors [operations] last year," said Brack May, the chef and owner of Cowbell, a New Orleans burger joint. "Let's just get ahead of the curve here."

May recently began requiring customers to show their vaccine cards for indoor dining. He said he wants to protect his workers, who are required to be vaccinated but often have young children at home, as well as his neighborhood, where some musicians recently contracted the coronavirus.

May expects that eventually, vaccine rules like his will be commonplace. Next month, New York City will start requiring vaccinations to enter restaurants, gyms and theaters.

Danny Meyer talks vaccine policy for indoor dining 07:34

But for now, customers are far more likely to encounter mask mandates. After lifting mask recommendations for fully vaccinated people in May, the CDC reversed course in late July, recommending masks for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people inside areas of higher transmission.

The shifting guidance has caused confusion over which rules to enforce and how. Walmart and Target, for instance, recently began requiring masks for employees — but not customers — in areas where virus transmission rates are high. McDonald's is requiring masks for both employees and customers. Home Depot's mask mandate is nationwide.

Amazon said August 6 that all workers in its warehouses would need to mask up starting August 9. Previously, employees were only required to wear masks if they have not been vaccinated against the virus.

"Facts change"

A handful of places, like Louisiana, the San Francisco Bay area and Las Vegas, are mandating masks indoors.

In Arkansa, Governor Asa Hutchinson said Sunday he changed his mind about a bill he signed in April to ban mask mandates across the state because "facts change," and admitted that signing it at a time when COVID-19 cases were low in his state was "an error."

"Facts change and leaders have to adjust to the new facts that you have and the reality of what you have to deal with," the Republican governor said on "Face the Nation."

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson says he changed mind on mask law because "facts change" 08:34

Many business owners didn't wait for the CDC or their local governments before acting. In mid-July, Tamra Patterson reinstituted a mask mandate and reduced seating capacity to 65 from 200 at Chef Tam's Underground Cafe, the restaurant she owns in Memphis, Tennessee.

"I need every dollar and dime and penny I can get, but if I don't have employees healthy, I don't have a business. If customers are sick, I have nothing," Patterson said.

Customers are generally receptive to the mask mandate, Patterson said. Only one has walked out.

PanTerra Gallery, a women's clothing store in Bisbee, Arizona, reinstated a mask mandate for customers a few weeks ago after watching cases climb nationwide.

Not all businesses support mandates

"We're a tourist town, so it was just a matter of time before it reached us again," said Lisa Wines, a PanTerra employee. Most people are fine with the new mandate, she said, but some turn around and stomp out of the store.

Not every business supports the mandates. Basilico's Pasta e Vino, a restaurant in Huntington Beach, California, has railed against masks on social media. A sign on its door requires patrons to prove that they're unvaccinated.

Some workers also don't want to see masks return. Dru W., a grocery employee in Houston who asked the Associated Press not to use his full name for fear of reprisals at work, said he was fully vaccinated months ago and enjoys the freedom it gives him to go without a mask. Few stores around him are enforcing the new CDC guidelines, he said, and he won't, either.

"I didn't get both my doses and deal with the rather gnarly side effects only to be told to go back to the way things were during the pandemic," he said.

Mask mandates cause political division in Missouri 03:21

But other retail workers see masks as an important way to end the pandemic. Austin Ray Shanks, who works at a Walmart in Monroe, Washington, said he finds masks uncomfortable but necessary. He's disappointed that many customers at his store refuse to wear them.

Marshall Crawley said his gym in Morrisville, North Carolina, recently announced that it would require masks for both vaccinated and unvaccinated patrons. But the rule isn't being enforced, he said.

CDC went too far

"It doesn't really feel like it is doing much good wearing a mask when everyone around me is not," said Crawley, a client manager for J&J Editorial, a services company for scholarly publishing.

Crawley thinks the CDC went too far when it told vaccinated people they could remove their masks this spring. Now, he said, it will be too hard to convince people to put them back on.

Jose Backer, who works in customer service at a food packaging manufacturer in Los Angeles County, said his company began letting vaccinated workers remove their masks earlier this year. But soon everyone stopped wearing them. That angered Backer, who doesn't want a repeat of a COVID-19 outbreak that sickened him and others at his workplace last year. He's relieved that his county is requiring masks inside for everyone again.

The new wave of mandates give some comfort to companies that never gave up on masks, even when U.S. cases ebbed earlier this summer.

Businesses change mask policies amid COVID-19 surge 09:35

Liz Manasek, the co-owner of Warner Bodies, a custom truck manufacturer in Elwood, Indiana, kept a mask policy in place after watching other companies struggle with different rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated workers.

About 60% of the company's 105 employees are now vaccinated, she said. She has told employees she won't consider removing the mandate until that level reaches 80%.

Manasek has gotten some pushback from workers, but she reminds them that the policy has been effective. Only one or two employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, she said.

"We've just got to hold out and keep on the basics," she said.

Kate Gibson, Kristopher Brooks and Megan Cerullo contributed to this report.

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