DC-area business owners want customers to be ‘comfortable’ now that masks are optional

Just as schools are working to make students and staff comfortable with the shift to going mask-optional, businesses across the D.C. region are also trying to accommodate customers and staff.

For Kathleen Donahue, owner of Labyrinth Games and Puzzles on Capitol Hill, the decision to ask patrons to keep masks on while in the store was simple: She wanted to keep her staff and her patrons safe.

Donahue said two members of her 15-member team had contracted COVID-19 right at Christmas and had been very sick with it. “Luckily, nobody had to go the hospital or anything.”

She said it’s not just her staff she wants to safeguard.

Donahue said that many children come into her store, which sells games, puzzles and toys, and a lot of the parents are concerned about their kids, who are younger than 5 years old and can’t get vaccinated yet.

Since D.C. announced that masks would no longer be required indoors starting Monday, Donahue said she had received some pushback. There was “an instantaneous increase” in the number of people who argued that they should not have to wear masks in her shop because of the change in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

Donahue offers customers masks they can wear in the store, or if they object, she’s happy to bring items out to show them, she said, which stores have done when the pandemic first hit. She also provides curbside pickup.

Still, some people were insistent that they should be able to shop without wearing a mask. Donahue said those who objected to wearing one were not people who frequented her store. “They weren’t regulars.”

She understands that people can’t wait to shed their masks, but she’s sticking to telling customers to please put on a mask if they want to shop inside her store. As a small business in the nation’s capital, Donahue gets plenty of shoppers from all over.

“It’s not fair for me to ask my staff to come and serve hundreds of people potentially from all over the country and not take every precaution that we possibly can,” she said.

In Laytonsville, Maryland, in Montgomery County, Kim Glab, the owner of The Family Room, a place where customers can pick up everything from locally made crafts to farm produce and ice cream and coffee, the approach is different.

Like Donahue, Glab said she wants all her customers to feel comfortable. While she and her staff don’t wear masks, they do keep theirs handy, and, “We’re happy to put a mask on for them.”

During the height of the pandemic, the store provided space for other makers and artisans to sell their goods. Tables and chairs were cleared out and the food and snacks were to-go.

“We recently just opened up a small area of gathering, so we have tables and chairs back in our location,” Glab said.

Customers are not required to wear their masks, as they browse, sip on coffee or dig into a scoop of ice cream.

Currently, there’s a an even split among customers: half seem content to go without a mask; others feel more comfortable keeping their masks on.

“We’ve had great luck with it,” Glab said, referring to the cooperation she’s seeing. “We’ve had shoppers shopping side-by-side one with a mask on, one without a mask,” she said.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich was asked if he’s heard from businesses concerned about having to manage mask policies now that the county’s mandate has been lifted.

“I personally haven’t heard from a small business that’s been concerned,” Elrich said.

He said businesses should feel comfortable requiring mask-wearing if they choose.

“I don’t believe that putting on a mask to go inside a store is any kind of serious imposition on anybody.” he said.

More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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