With no mask mandate, Anchorage businesses are left to decide what they’ll risk for public health

man stands with a stuffed animal wearing a spiky vest.
Mark Robokoff, owner of AK Bark, shows off a vest designed to protect small dogs from predators. He says he’s had to balance protecting his staff from COVID while avoiding confrontations with aggressive anti-maskers. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Outside a pet supply shop on Dimond Boulevard is a sign asking unvaccinated customers to wear masks. Owner Mark Robokoff said it’s enough to set some people off.

“We’ve had just an unreasonable amount of pushback from people — people attacking our staff verbally. Swearing. Just completely acting not in the way that you expect people in the civilized society to act,” said Robokoff, whose shop is called AK Bark.

Robokoff isn’t asking for vaccination cards. It’s on the honor system. He can imagine what would happen if he were to require everyone to wear a mask. Arguments are likely, he said. Maybe even violence.

“So we’re really trying to ride a balance here,” he said, “between the safety of our customers and staff, the convenience and comfort of our customers and staff, and also, really, the safety from those people who don’t agree with our decisions.”

COVID cases are surging in Anchorage again, but this time, there’s no municipal mask mandate and no authority telling businesses how to keep COVID from spreading. That leaves some business owners like Robokoff in the uncomfortable position of deciding how much they are willing to confront their customers and employees to protect public health.

RELATED: Without safety net of mandates, Anchorage’s overtaxed, understaffed hospitals brace for more patients

Robokoff is frustrated enough to talk about it, even though he’s concerned that publicizing his masking policy will cost him customers. He’s also decided to make vaccination a requirement for new hires and he thinks it has deterred job applicants. 

Employers large and small are in the same boat.

“It’s a challenging time to be throwing down gauntlets, when it’s a seller’s market on employment and people may say to you, ‘Well, fine, I’ll just go somewhere else,’” said Jennifer Bundy-Cobb, director of employee benefits at consulting firm Wilson Albers, which advises employers.

Some companies are considering charging their unvaccinated employees more for their health insurance, Bundy-Cobb said, but it’s all just talk so far. It seems to her that smaller contractors are all waiting for the larger corporations they serve to go first, to lay down mandates that other companies would then follow.

“There’s a lot of employers that would like to do something with teeth, and they’re struggling because they don’t want to lose people,” she said. “And they don’t want bad press, right?”

No company wants to be the next to draw an anti-vaccine protestors.

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Bundy-Cobb said she also knows of Anchorage employers who aren’t struggling at all, because they’re not imposing any safety measures.

“We have employers who don’t want to get involved in this discussion, and don’t believe that it’s anybody’s business, and they’re just going to go about their day,” she said. “And if someone gets sick in their four walls, so be it.”

At Salon DaVinci in Midtown, owner Jen Bersch isn’t struggling either. She’s opted for extensive hygiene measures, and she’s not making allowances for COVID skeptics or the mask-averse. To get in the door, you mask up and wait on the sidewalk. Signs all over the salon spell out the policies and protocols.

“Each and every client gets a tote that has all of their tools — clips, their capes, everything — all sanitized for each person,” she said.

Masked lady in an apron stand in a salon. Sign in foreground reads "love is in the are and so are germs so please wash your hands."
Jen Bersch, owner of Salon DaVinci, has extensive safety protocols. She gives no ground to COVID skeptics or the mask-averse. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

She took out two stations to allow more distance.

Even when case counts plunged earlier in the summer, she didn’t  let up.

“I said to my staff, ‘Okay, this is the time when people are going to start to get really relaxed about things. And we need to remember that we don’t have the option of doing that,'” she recalled.

Some customers said they didn’t need to mask because their vaccinations would keep them safe. Bersch didn’t relent.

“I just keep reminding people like, ‘Look, we are right in your breath line, we are right in your face,'” she said.

She’s got fewer stylists working. She leaves 15 minutes between customers to sanitize. The gloves she and her staff change constantly cost nearly $50 a box. She’s gained some customers drawn to her safety-first protocols, and she’s raised her prices, but not enough to cover the extra costs.

“We’re financially backsliding pretty much every month, but we can’t close,” she said. “I mean, like, what are we going to do? What are the customers going to do?”

Bersch is comfortable with the choices she’s made, even though protecting the health of her workers and customers has eroded the health of her business.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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