People's Food Co-op began requiring its customers to wear masks in the store 11 days ago.
Lizzy Haywood, the co-op’s CEO and general manager, said the decision was made with two concerns in mind: co-op employees and public health.
“When a business is viewed as taking care of its workers, it adds a comfort level for its customers,” she said.
Olmsted County Public Health officials say face coverings are intended to protect people surrounding the wearer.
“We encourage those with concerns to consider that we wear masks to lessen the risk not for ourselves, but for those around us that cannot decide whether they are exposed or not,” Public Health spokeswoman Kari Etrheim wrote Monday in a statement on the topic. “You, as an individual, can make that decision to protect others by wearing a mask.”
Olmsted County Public Health is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which includes recommendations for using cloth face masks in public spaces, particularly when keeping 6 feet between people could be a challenge.
“This recommendation is grounded in the growing evidence that cloth masks lessen the risk for exposure and infection with COVID-19,” Etrheim wrote, adding that 10% to 50% of virus carriers show no symptoms and may not know they pose a threat to others.
Haywood said that’s why co-op managers are now approaching customers who are not wearing masks. She said approximately 95 percent of the customers respond by putting on a mask, while others opt for curbside pickup.
Still, there has been pushback.
“I think any business or organization has experienced that,” she said. “Wearing a face covering is anything from uncomfortable to frightening to feeling unnecessary in people’s minds. We respect all those feelings and opinions.”
Abe Sauer, owner of Old Abe Coffee Shop, hasn’t gone as far as posting a “masks required” sign in his business, but he and his staff encourage all customers to wear face coverings when ordering food or coffee in the Seventh Street Northwest restaurant.
However, if someone refuses, he said the order is typically taken and the customer is asked to wait outside, since all service is for take-out or patio dining at this point.
He said it’s about balancing risk, asking whether the bigger risk is seen in a 3- to 4-minute conversation with an upset customer or in quickly taking an order.
Sauer has been advocating for a citywide mask requirement, or at least adding it to the new Rochester Ready program. He said it would support businesses that want to do the right thing.
“It also provides an equal playing field for the businesses that are requiring them,” he said.
Rochester Ready rolled out last week through a partnership between the city, Destination Medical Center Economic Development Agency, Experience Rochester, Mayo Clinic, Olmsted County and the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce. The program requires employees of participating businesses to wear face coverings and encourages customers to do the same.
The Rochester City Council took the issue a step further Monday by voting 6-1 to affirm Mayor Kim Norton’s call to mandate masks in city-owned and -operated facilities.
The requirement starts Wednesday and lasts until the end of state’s emergency order or additional council action. It does not extend the mandate to buildings leased from the city, including spaces occupied by the BioBusiness Center, Dooley’s Pub and Legends Bar and Grill.
Rochester City Administrator Steve Rymer said the requirement also won’t be enforced in city-owned skyways, since the system includes a complex mix of ownership.
Council President Randy Staver, who cast the sole vote against the change, questioned potential enforcement challenges.
The mask mandate would be enforced through the city's trespass law, according to Police Chief Jim Franklin, who said violators will be asked to leave or wear a mask. Failure to comply could result in a fine.
The policy change also acknowledges city staff already follow an established protocol for wearing masks, which calls for use anytime a 6-foot distance cannot be guaranteed.
Fire Chief Eric Kerska said his department has been strictly following mask and social distancing guidelines.
He said the mayor’s change falls within current practices, which has helped prevent illness in the city’s fire halls.
Rochester council member Mark Bilderback said he encourages residents and others to wear masks when in public, but he is drawing the line at making it a requirement at this point.
“It’s up to the businesses, and that’s what I think it should be,” he said, adding that the spread of COVID-19 in Rochester is lower than in other areas and the data doesn’t indicate a need for a mandate.
Council member Nick Campion said mask usage can help make sure indicators stay down.
“I think it’s far past time to do the simple things we can do now to avoid another closure, he said.