Masks required: How Butler County businesses are dealing with customers who won’t comply

Justin Carder talks to customers Angie Mantell-Smith, left, and Stephanie Hart at Unsung Salvage Design Company Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020 on Main Street in Hamilton. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF
Justin Carder talks to customers Angie Mantell-Smith, left, and Stephanie Hart at Unsung Salvage Design Company Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020 on Main Street in Hamilton. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

The long-awaited coronavirus vaccine became a reality in southwest Ohio last week, but the daily reality of wearing protective masks isn’t changing anytime soon, experts say.

With that will come continued debates and some confrontations about requiring masks in businesses, which has been an issue for months, business owners told the Journal-News.

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In some locally owned stores, owners say they are struggling to keep their businesses going while doing a balancing act of making sure both customers and employees are wearing the face coverings.

“Small businesses are keenly aware they are at the epicenter of saving both lives and livelihoods,” said Roger Geiger, vice president and Ohio executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

Small business owners, said Geiger, “understand all too well the need to protect both their employees and their customers.”

There are 22,000 family owned business members of the NFIB Ohio chapter, he said, and last week state inspectors looking for mask violations in stores issued about two dozen citations.

“The vast majority of (small) businesses are doing this the right way,” he said.

Still, in-store enforcement is an extra burden for already put upon shop owners.

“Being the mask police sometimes can be difficult,” he said.

At times, younger store employees – even teenage workers – find themselves in situations in which they have to address adult customers who are inside a business without a mask, said Geiger.

More than 73.6 million coronavirus cases have been diagnosed worldwide since the start of the pandemic, and nearly 17 million have been in the United States. More than 1.6 million people worldwide have died from the virus, which includes more than 300,000 in the United States.

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Tallies from earlier this week in Ohio show nearly 585,000 cases since March with nearly 7,800 Ohioans dying from the virus.

For some, ‘it’s not getting any easier’

Sarah Rieke, owner of The Mad Piper Bakery in Ross Twp., opened earlier this year. After nearly 10 months of dealing with mask mandates, she said “it’s not getting any easier.”

Requiring customers to wear masks has been “extremely awkward and strange on small business owners because we don’t know how they (customers) will react,” said Rieke.

Missy Wagner-Passarge, owner of Candy Stash Sweets & Treats in Liberty Twp., said “we have our sign posted and very rarely does someone try to come in without a mask.”

“If they do, we politely ask them to get one or call us and we can shop for them and bring it out to them,” said Wagner-Passarge. “We have not had anyone push back on our request to wear one.”

That’s what Dan Bates, president and CEO of the Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, is hearing from most of his small business members.

“The businesses have set the expectation and it seems most of the customers are complying,” said Bates. “With the (coronavirus case) numbers rising, more are wearing masks and it creates the expectation among the customers.”

But Bates is sympathetic about the possible legal burden on family business owners and criticizes the stressful position they’ve been for forced into.

“Let’s face it, making the businesses owners the compliance police was inappropriate to begin with as it attempts to put the legal liability on the business owner if someone makes a claim that they contracted the virus at that business,” he said.

Justin Carder, owner of Unsung Salvage Design Company on Main Street in Hamilton, said mask wearing was harder to enforce in the early months of the pandemic when it was not yet state-mandated for customers inside a business.

Like at many small businesses, extra masks are at hand if a shopper comes in without one.

“The city has been great about that,” said Carder. “They provided all the local businesses with masks. When everything first happened, there was a little bit of a pushback. But we told people we are just trying to stay open.

“If there comes a time when people refuse to wear masks or aren’t wearing masks and it causes everything to be shut down again (state-ordered closures) it will be pretty detrimental to our business.”