Davey Peterson said he and his wife, Alyssa, were initially excited about the potential benefits to their Baker City business when federal and state officials announced on May 13 that fully vaccinated people needn’t wear masks in most settings.
“We were pretty thrilled,” Davey Peterson said.
But the Petersons’ enthusiasm was brief.
The couple, who own Peterson’s Chocolates on Main Street, learned quickly that Oregon had no specific guidelines for businesses.
Moreover, the statements that Oregon officials did make suggest that businesses, should they choose to welcome maskless customers, will first have to verify that those customers are fully vaccinated.
That’s not the sort of greeting Davey Peterson is eager to give to people who are ready to choose their favorite handmade decadent treats.
“We were mortified that the whole enforcement piece could fall back on businesses,” he said. “We were deeply disappointed.”
Peterson said that although most customers have respected the mask mandates in effect for most of the past year, he understands that the May 13 announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will naturally lead people who are fully vaccinated to expect that they’ll be able to go shopping without a mask.
But if Oregon officials require businesses to verify customers’ vaccination status, he fears that will add another potential area of conflict between business owners and their customers.
“We’re stuck in a precarious position to have to comply with rules to stay in business,” Peterson said. “It puts mom and pop businesses in a really difficult situation.”
He said customers have been immensely patient during the pandemic, and adjusting to changes including the mask mandate.
“We were brought to tears more than once over Christmas by local folks supporting our business,” Peterson said. “The community really came together to shop local.”
He said he hopes residents will be similarly accommodating as businesses wait for, and deal with, new guidelines.
The Petersons’ reaction to the highly publicized statements by both the CDC and Oregon officials, and their concern about what some customers will expect, are common, said Shelly Cutler, executive director of the Baker County Chamber of Commerce.
“I think it’s a very difficult position for any business owner to be in,” Cutler said. “It’s unfair. I think it’s going to create a lot of problems.”
Cutler said a frequent concern she’s heard over the past several days from local business owners is that setting different standards for people who are fully vaccinated will create both confusion and, potentially, anger among customers.
“I don’t want our community divided into two groups,” Cutler said.
Another question that has arisen recently is whether store workers have a legal right to ask customers about their vaccination status, Cutler said.
That query is based on federal and state health privacy laws.
Cutler said she’s looked into the matter and is confident that businesses can ask customers whether they’re fully vaccinated. She noted that the health privacy laws prevent hospitals and other health care providers from disclosing patients’ medical records.
But the bigger problem, Cutler said, is that she doesn’t think businesses should be in a position of having to ask a question which, she’s certain, will offend some customers.
Tyler Brown, who owns Barley Brown’s Brew Pub and Tap House, separate businesses on Main Street in Baker City, said he will continue to require diners to wear masks until state officials issue detailed guidance.
Brown said he dislikes the idea of asking maskless customers to prove they’re fully vaccinated.
“The service industry is stuck in the middle, unfortunately,” he said.
Brown is also disappointed that after both federal and state officials announced the new guidelines on mask wearing and social distancing for fully vaccinated people, Oregon had no specific guidance for how businesses can deal with the change.
“It’s a crazy level of confusion,” Brown said.
The more pressing problem now, though, is not mask mandates, Brown said, but rather the restrictions on restaurants and bars that remain in effect.
Baker County is at high risk, which limits indoor dining to 25% of capacity.
With that restriction, Brown said diners in his restaurant are already so spread out that masks are, in his estimation, basically a moot point.
Beverly Calder, who owns BELLA Main Street Market in Baker City, said she plans to continue to require customers to wear masks.
“We’re just going to wear masks to protect ourselves and protect our customers,” Calder said. “I just want to make sure we keep everybody as safe as we can. It’s a small inconvenience.”
Calder said she has a high percentage of customers who are elderly, and thus at much greater risk of having severe symptoms if they’re infected with COVID-19, as well as several employees who have asthma.
She said she will continue to offer home delivery and curbside service.
Calder said she prefers to focus on running her businesses — she has a store in downtown La Grande as well — rather than verify customers’ vaccination status, which she called a “personal matter.”
“I don’t think I feel comfortable verifying vaccinations,” Calder said.
She said she looks forward to the time when masks are no longer needed.
Calder said she hopes Baker County’s vaccination rate will rise.
As of Monday, May 17, a total of 5,920 county residents were either fully vaccinated (5,149, or 30.7% of the population) or partially vaccinated (771, or 4.6%).