Erin Nystrom said a mask requirement at Rochester Potbelly Sandwich Shop locations has seen an outstanding response.
While a handful of vocal opponents have vowed to avoid the eatery, she said more people have indicated that the mask requirement led them through the doors.
“We started the requirement June 1, and before the requirement, they would not have come in,” said Nystrom, who is one of the local business’ owners.
She said the requirement goes beyond making customers feel safe.
“If I wear a mask, I’m protecting you; I’m not all that protected, if I’m wearing a cloth mask,” she said. “When we are asking our customers to wear a mask, we are doing it to protect our employees.”
She said the concern about the health of employees and customers is why Potbelly signed up for the Rochester Ready program, which includes a hospitality safety pledge for restaurants, retailers and hotels.
Supported by the city, Destination Medical Center Economic Development Agency, Experience Rochester, Mayo Clinic, Olmsted County and the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, the pledge doesn’t include a mask mandate for customers.
After agreeing to a citywide mandate for public indoor spaces, including store and restaurants, some Rochester City Council members said the pledge needs to be revised.
“I won’t be able to stomach the concept of Rochester Ready not supporting the city’s position on this,” said council member Nick Campion said after approving the two-month city requirement, which starts Wednesday.
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Deputy City Administrator Aaron Parrish said the team behind creating the Rochester Ready requirements is slated to meet Thursday, and he’ll bring the council’s concerns to their attention then.
He said the group had discussed adding a mask requirement but landed on a compromise that encourages customers to wear a mask, rather than requiring one.
“It really is grounded in some of the challenges you identified,” he said of the Rochester Ready outcome.
Among concerns voiced by the council were options for enforcement of the city mandate, which could result in business owners losing a city license or needing to call police for support if a customer refuses to wear a mask.
“You could have some outcomes that are certainly unintended, to say the least,” said Council President Randy Staver, who cast the sole council vote against the mandate.
Staver also noted that the Rochester Ready group faced the challenge of representing several organizations while also seeking to get businesses to participate.
“They don’t have the luxury of being an elected body that can decree certain things,” he added.
The Rochester Ready program is voluntary, so enforcement is minimum, but repeated violations of the pledge could lead to removal, according to Bill Von Bank, director of marketing and communications for DMC EDA.
He added that the mask compromise did ask businesses to exceed standard requirements.
“Requiring employees to wear face coverings goes above and beyond what is required of many businesses by the State of Minnesota,” he said. “Being part of Rochester Ready is an opportunity for businesses to lead by example and showcase safety precautions they are putting in place to stop the spread.”
Carol Bitton, owner of Counterpoint in Galleria at University Square, said slight prompting is all that’s needed to encourage many customers to don masks.
In a video produced by the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, she said a simple sign encouraging face coverings is all it took.
“They are putting on the mask before they come in, and we don’t really have to say anything to them,” she said of customers.
Mayo Clinic physician Jack O'Horo, an infectious disease specialist, said the education portion of the Rochester Ready program is crucial.
“Getting people to adapt and adopt new health measures is challenging,” he told the city council Monday while indicating that Mayo Clinic supported the council’s decision.
He also encouraged continued support for Rochester Ready as a way to reach out to businesses.
“A mandate without resources or education will not be as productive or successful,” he said.
Council member Michael Wojcik, however, said failing to require masks for all in the business could lead some customers to believe a store or restaurant is doing everything possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“It was misleading, and we could potentially send people into harm’s way without them knowing, and I wouldn’t want Rochester’s name on that,” he said.
Council member Patrick Keane said some flexibility is likely required.
“We can’t just make them bend to our will or we leave,” he said.
Rochester Mayor Kim Norton, who initiated the city’s mask mandate, said she believes the Rochester Ready effort has merit and is positioned to help support the new requirement.
“While no effort is perfect, this is one that was started in good faith,” she said.