News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Businesses grapple with evolving mask rules

Oregon made national news recently with its latest COVID-19 prevention rules. The New York Times used Oregon as its lead on its May 13 story of ways states are using incentives to increase vaccinations. Oregon has tied lifting of masking restrictions to attaining a 70 percent vaccination rate for all citizens 16 and over.

Nathaniel Brown, spokesperson for Oregon Business and Industry, told the Times that they “have serious concerns about the practicality of requiring business owners and workers to be the enforcer…We are hearing from retailers and small businesses who are concerned about putting their frontline workers in a potentially untenable position when dealing with customers.”

The Washington Examiner ran a headline: “Oregon nears full reopening as ‘vaccine passport’ debate flares up.” US News & World Report, ABC, and USA Today were among others pointing to Oregon’s latest effort to control the virus’ spread.

Jason Brandt, CEO of the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, says there is no consensus in the hospitality industry about how to move forward. Some, he said, plan to maintain their mask rules until the state reopens.

“It’s quite a mixed bag out there,” Brandt said. “We have operators who have committed earlier on in the pandemic to never ask for employees’ or customers’ vaccination status.”

The Nugget set about to sample Sisters businesses and organizations as to how the newest rules were impacting their operations or changing the way they served. Much of the public’s emphasis is on retail, especially dining, but the rules cover a spectrum of settings including houses of worship. The Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration has resumed in-person worship after more than a year’s absence. Ushers check vaccination cards before worshippers are admitted to the sanctuary.

Across the street at St. Edward the Martyr Catholic Church, congregants, some masked, most not, enter without any verification of immunization. Both churches have dispensed with the communion cup, offering only the traditional communion wafers.

In the retail sector, it’s a stew. Dollar General, a national chain operating in Sisters, takes direction from corporate headquarters. In this case, masks are still mandatory for shoppers, as is their right to require per Oregon Health Authority mandate.

At Bi-Mart, all employees have face coverings as did three out of four patrons when The Nugget visited. There was no obvious enforcement of masks, nor asking for proof of vaccination.

Store Manager Joey Braw-Ewry, told The Nugget, “We do the best we can asking anybody who comes in (the controlled entrance) to put on their masks. Once they are in the store and remove their mask, we simply don’t have the staff to police it. And some customers come in through the exit only door and we can’t be sure they are masked.”

Employees, who asked not to be named, said they did not feel it was appropriate to ask customers about their vaccination status.

The scene was nearly identical at Ray’s Food Place, although masking and distancing signage was still front and center. About six in 10 customers were masked, with all employees’ faces covered.

Neither the Habitat Thrift Store nor Paulina Springs Books had relaxed their prior policy requiring all to be masked, with six feet of separation and a limit on how many can be in their store at one time.

Oliver Lemon’s was the only store we found to display the most recent signage taken directly from the Oregon Health Authority website. Here, it was virtually 100 percent mask wearers as it was at Sisters Meat & Smokehouse where nothing has changed. No mask, no service.

Travelling up and down Cascade, Hood, and Main avenues, there was a variation on a theme: mostly masked employees, the entire gamut of masked/maskless patrons, and an apparent prevailing “don’t ask” honor system.

Kara Lappe, owner of SweetEasy Co. and Cascade Gifts, shared her frustration.

“In a word: confusing,” Lappe said. “Being regulated both by OSHA, who enforce mask rules, and the county health department because we serve food, it’s even more daunting to keep up.”

She added: “Our employees have been in masks over a year and they’re reaching mask burnout, as are most of our customers.”

Marilyn Reed from Lebanon, maskless at SweetEasy Co., said: “We like coming to Sisters where we don’t feel judged or shamed if we don’t wear our masks.”

Carly Matthews, masked and day-tripping from Keizer, shared her sympathy as she exited Lappe’s gift shop.

“I love coming here to sample the fudge, which I can’t with my mask,” she said. “If I take it off, I worry that one of the workers will get in trouble. It just seems unfair to put store owners in this position.”

Sisters Athletic Club requires members wishing to be on the premises without a mask to show proof of vaccination, which is marked in the member’s file. No copy of the vaccination card is kept, only the notation. Members still have the obligation to sanitize any equipment they use.

Laird Superfood, the presumptive largest employer in Sisters, is offering their vaccinated employees to be mask-free.

“A sticker is placed on their ID badge,” according to Angela Linker, an administrative manager. “Early response has been enthusiastic,” Linker said.

Employers and shop-keepers express quiet frustration and anxiety in being faithful to the rules, wanting to be good citizens, while not upsetting customers or workers in the process.


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