Mask police again? Butler County businesses find themselves in ‘awkward situation’ as COVID cases increase

Tano Bistro is located at 150 Riverfront Plaza in the first floor of The Marcum, a mixed-used development in Hamilton. Tyler McCleary, director of operations, says it's “always a struggle” regarding mask wearing because his business is concerned about the safety and well being of its staff and guests. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
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Tano Bistro is located at 150 Riverfront Plaza in the first floor of The Marcum, a mixed-used development in Hamilton. Tyler McCleary, director of operations, says it's “always a struggle” regarding mask wearing because his business is concerned about the safety and well being of its staff and guests. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

When Gov. Mike DeWine ordered an indoor mask mandate, business owners were protected by the government regulations.

But as the number of coronavirus cases dropped, the governor lifted the mask mandate.

Now that the Delta variant of COVID-19 has intensified, some people are wearing masks again indoors, leaving business owners in an “awkward situation,” said Hatem Shteiwi, owner of Gold Star Chili near Middletown and co-owner of Forest Hills Country Club Vue 791 in Middletown.

“We have no guidelines to go by,” Shteiwi said. “That leaves us in a bad place. I hope we get a universal game plan so we’re all on the same page.”

As a business owner, his goal is to get customers in the door. He doesn’t want to “upset” them by telling them they must wear a mask until it’s mandated again by the state.

The Ohio Department of Health reported just more than 1,400 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, down from the over 2,300 cases reported Saturday. As of Sunday, the 21-day average is 1,201 cases per day.

The ODH also reported Sunday that just more than 50% of Ohio’s population has had at least one vaccination against COVID-19

DeWine doesn’t plan to mandate masks or issue other health orders to stem the latest surge.

“Individual choice is what we are about at this point in the pandemic because we have the vaccine,” DeWine said last week during a news conference. “Schools are making choices now. We believe in local education, local schools making decisions. Businesses, hospitals are all making decisions based on the facts.”

Lisa Combs, co-owner of Combs BBQ Central in Middletown, said some of her customers, mostly older, continue wearing masks inside the restaurant though it’s not mandated.

Even when masks were required, Combs said some of her customers didn’t wear them and that made her employers uncomfortable.

“You are always going to get a backlash, especially on social media, with whatever you do,” she said. “It’s hard to say, ‘You can’t come in.’”

As a co-owner of a small business and mother of two children, Combs said she can’t be “too cautious” when it comes to COVID-19 and the variant.

“It’s getting a little scary,” she said.

Tyler McCleary, director of operations at Tano Bistro, 150 Riverfront Plaza, Hamilton, said it’s “always a struggle” because his business is concerned about the safety and well being of its staff and guests.

“It would be easier if we always knew what was going on, what to do,” he said. “Right now we’re going with our guts and what makes sense at that moment.”

Customers who are fully vaccinated don’t have to wear a mask, he said. But he said that’s impossible to police.

“We just want people to be as safe as possible,” he said.

That’s the same philosophy at Luxe, an event center in Fairfield, said owner Angela Sampson.

While the staff wears masks, Sampson said she leaves mask-wearing up to her clients and they typically address that in their invitations.

Sampson, who hosted her first wedding in September 2020, said the mandates seen to change day-to-day, week-to-week.

“It’s such a tricky time,” she said.

Due to the public health conditions and on the advice of the City of Hamilton Health Commissioner, the Fitton Center for Creative Arts will be requiring all staff, patrons and public coming into the building to wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status, it announced Friday.

The center has received “outstanding support and advice” from the health department throughout the pandemic and that has allowed it to provide summer camps, classes, exhibitions and performances, inside and outside, according to a release.

Premier Health, the largest health network in the area, requires universal masking for all employees and visitors in all the facilities, clinical and non-clinical. This includes Atrium Medical Center in Middletown and all Premier Physician Network and outpatient sites throughout Butler and Warren counties.

The only exceptions are when alone in a private office, or when actively eating or drinking, said Jennifer Burcham, a spokesperson for Premier. The reason for this is to “maximize protection” from the Delta variant of COVID-19 and to reduce the possibility of spreading it to others, she said.

She said the health and wellness of patients, employees, and physicians is the “top priority” of Premier Health. Throughout the pandemic, Premier has consistently monitored guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local, state, and federal health officials, to shape policies surrounding COVID-19, Burcham said.