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Many small businesses say they'll leave decision to de-mask up to customers

CDC mask guidance creating confusion
CDC mask guidance creating confusion nationwide 09:48

Americans who are vaccinated against COVID-19 now have a green light from federal health authorities to take off their masks, signaling a more hopeful phase in the nation's 14-month battle against the pandemic. Yet many small businesses, nearly battered into submission by the virus, are choosing to proceed more cautiously.

Kay Lee, the owner of Otte, a women's boutique in Manhattan's West Village neighborhood in New York City, said her customers typically mask up without her having to ask. Her staff, who are are fully vaccinated, also wear masks.

"When customers walk in, they wear their masks. No one takes them off," Lee told CBS MoneyWatch. 

For small employers, the challenge of how to move ahead as coronavirus infections decline comes as states across the country drop mask requirements following updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo said Monday that, for the first time since April 2020, the state will no longer require masks inside most places beginning on Wednesday. Private venues in states without mandates may still set their own rules, much like a business with a sign stating "no shoes, no shirt, no service." 

A number of large U.S. retailers, including Walmart and Trader Joe's, said last week they will no longer require masks in stores in states without mask mandates. 

States and businesses scramble to adjust to CDC's new mask guidance 03:51

Once New York's statewide mandate is lifted this week, Lee will no longer require that masks be worn inside Otte. But she will continue to limit the number of guests in her 950-square foot store to eight people at time. She also thinks her city customers will continue wearing masks of their own volition. 

"I don't think I can say anything about it. But I haven't seen anybody not wearing masks," Lee said. "We won't require mask-wearing, but everyone is still keeping their mask on their face. I think a lot of people are still insecure about taking their masks off. 

The owners of Syrian bakery Damascus in Brooklyn, New York, will also relax their mask policy come Wednesday. 

"We're going to go with the flow. We can't force everyone to wear masks if not everybody is going to do this," a spokesperson for the bakery said. 

"Makes the customers more comfortable"

Staff at the Daybreak Diner in Orlando, Florida, aren't required under state law to wear masks, but do so anyway, according to owner Gerard Johnson. "They know they don't have to, but they are still doing it because they feel it makes the customers more comfortable," he said. 

Other customers have ditched their face coverings. 

"We've always tried to leave it to the customers, period, even when the mandates were in place," Johnson said of since-rescinded local ordinances requiring facial coverings in public settings. "I'm not much for the federal government telling us what to do," he said.

That belief extends to workers at the diner, which closed for about two months last year because of the pandemic, getting vaccinated. "It's their choice and I don't need to know," said Johnson, who has not yet decided himself whether to get immunized.

Shielding employees from angry customers

At the Good Truckin Diner in Lansing, Michigan, customers are on the honor system when it comes to being vaccinated and not wearing a mask. 

"I don't want to put any more on my employees to have to police it and put them in the way of people getting angry," said Nicholas Sinicropi, the diner's owner. 

That anger can come to a boil after a change in COVID-19 practices like the CDC's revised mask guidance, Sinicropi said. People "interpret it however they want, without necessarily reading the fine print — then they get mad."

The diner's current policy is that customer are not required to mask up if they are vaccinated, but all employees must wear a facial covering regardless of their vaccination status. "The bigger problem would have to be clarity on employees," Sinicropi said. "We're waiting for [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] to clear that up."

Sticking to their policies

Austin, Texas, restaurant Sawyer & Co., which bills itself as a "traditional Southern diner," will continue to require masks despite the state not requiring it.

"Masks aren't just for Mardi Gras...Sawyer & Co. requires you wear one until we all get the shot (and we're not talking about tequila!)," the restaurant says on its website.

"We're hoping more of our staff get vaccinated," Leanne Rodger, the restaurant's manager, told CBS MoneyWatch. About a quarter of Sawyer & Co.'s 40 employees have been immunized, Rodger estimates, who noted "a little resistance" among some workers. 

As for customers, "We have masks we offer for $1 for sale if they would like to dine with us," Rodger said. 

Those who have already been vaccinated have no problem complying with the restaurant's mask requirement. "The vaccinated people have not given us any trouble — it's the non-vaccinated that are giving us trouble" over having to wear a facial covering, she said.

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