Anchorage businesses face fraught decisions after mask mandate is lifted

A box of pins saying 'I got my shots
Shelby Emmert and canine Belle Grace Griffin visit AK Bark without masks on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Mark Robokoff, the owner of AK Bark, a South Anchorage pet store, was thrilled to learn of new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that suggested vaccinated people can now safely be unmasked indoors.

But, he said, the Anchorage Assembly’s decision last Friday to immediately lift the mask mandate in the city put him in a tough spot. 

“No matter what decision we make, we’re going to anger some people,” he said. “I would not describe it as empowering.”

Around Anchorage, businesses are facing similar dilemmas in deciding what policies to set, balancing factors like the size of their shops, customer preferences and pandemic fatigue. For each business, the calculation is different: Some rushed to lift the mask requirements, others are keeping them in full force.

AK Bark decided to get rid of its mask requirement for employees and customers. But, like many businesses around town, employees still carry masks in their pockets so they can put them on if a customer feels uncomfortable. The business also has a prominent sign in the window asking unvaccinated customers to wear a mask — though they’re not checking vaccination statuses.  

While Robokoff is confident in the safety of his decision, he admits part of the reason for his change had nothing to do with science. 

“It was the employees themselves that were encouraging the change,” he said. “And I think a lot of that was coming from just tiredness of having to remind people to put their masks on.”

For customers, the abrupt change also means a new world of navigating differing mask rules. While some people have proudly posted images on social media of their masks curdling in bonfires, for others, the unmasked city presents a new world of risks. 

Heather Sterling, a 72-year-old kidney transplant recipient, said the lifting of the mask requirement meant she immediately curtailed going into stores. 

“If I have to compromise my health, I just won’t,” she said. “I may have to use Instacart.”

Research from Johns Hopkins University shows that while the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines are over 95% effective for most people, only about half of organ transplant recipients show any antibody protection.

Sterling said now that many businesses have lifted mandates, she is back to assessing each store’s mask policies individually, sometimes with the help of a Facebook group. She wishes more businesses would continue to require masks. 

“I’m not going to to be ugly or mean or demeaning. But I certainly will be appreciative, and I will go out of my way to frequent those places that I know will consider us and wear masks,” she said.

Assemblyman and Bosco’s comic shop owner John Weddleton said while he sympathizes with those who are immunocompromised, the government has to balance competing interests. 

“We have a responsibility to protect public health — look at traffic laws, fire occupancy restrictions and health rules for restaurants — these are a real common part of our role, but they should be as light as possible,” he said. “So we’d hit a point where I think we just couldn’t justify a mask mandate.”

A blon woman in an black apron and black mask clips the hair of a woman in a chair
An employee works on a client’s hair on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Customers at The Beauty Room who wish to keep up masking precautions can schedule appointments on Mondays and Wednesdays, when all clients are required to be masked. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Some businesses have come up with creative hybrid policies to accommodate people like Sterling.

At The Beauty Room, a hair and beauty salon in Midtown Anchorage, owner Debbie Cedeno designated Mondays and Wednesdays as mask days for all employees and customers. 

“We will continue to enforce masking on those days,” she said. “We will dedicate that time to people who want an extra level of precaution.”

Customers seem to be happy with the policy, she said, which she expects to last until younger kids are approved for the vaccine. Being forced to make the decisions so quickly has been an added burden to an already difficult year, but Cedeno said she isn’t complaining.  

“To be honest, seeing people, seeing their faces, seeing people smile — it’s been a joy,” she said.

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.

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