With mixed messaging on masks, businesses are forced to shoulder the burden

A shopper and a cashier at a grocery store both wear masks
Dora Macias, a cashier at the Albertsons in San Carlos, rings up Gina Springer’s groceries last year.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s sweeping relaxations for mask requirements came as a surprise to many — businesses included.

The public health agency announced Thursday that anyone who is fully vaccinated can stop wearing masks and social distancing in most indoor settings. California says otherwise and will keep in effect for now strict mask rules at stores and places of employment in the state.

This discrepancy is forcing businesses into a tough-yet-familiar situation in which they’ll have to enforce contentious rules for customers receiving mixed messaging from different governmental entities.


Many business owners and workers expect awkward interactions that could alienate customers and put employees at risk. Some customers might not pick up on the difference between the tighter state restrictions and the looser national guidelines.

Were the state to follow the national guidelines, businesses might still find themselves in a predicament. Nearly 38% of Californians are fully vaccinated, so if the state followed suit with the CDC and relaxed mask guidelines for vaccinated people indoors, the other 62% would still be forced to wear masks.

“It’s not right to put us in that position,” said Haley Solar, owner of the eponymous boutique Haley Solar with locations in Eagle Rock and Silver Lake. “I don’t know how we would enforce a mask mandate for some without making customers feel discriminated against.”

Requirements that customers wear masks in stores, restaurants and other establishments are often just requests. Workers must enforce compliance.

Aug. 7, 2020

She said if California allows everyone to go mask-free indoors, she’ll follow the state’s lead. But if the state says only vaccinated people can go mask-free, she’ll still ask that all shoppers wear masks.

“My store is a lifestyle store for people to feel good about themselves. Asking for a medical history card feels violating,” she said.

Over the past year, policing mask use has become an added job responsibility for many essential workers. Dan Kurtz, a sales associate at the Italian marketplace Eataly, has been forced to remind customers to use their masks “nonstop.”


“It disrupts the workday. People know better than to take their mask off indoors, so if they do, they’re usually stubborn and looking for a fight,” he said. “You tell the first 10 people to put their mask on, but at a certain point, you get tired. There’s only so much you can do.”

Discerning who’s vaccinated and who isn’t will make those conversations even more difficult, Kurtz said.

Without interrogating people at the door or requiring medical cards, businesses will have to take people at their word on their vaccination status. Kurtz said he doesn’t trust shoppers to tell the truth about whether they’re vaccinated when it would be so easy to lie.

On Friday afternoon, business was brisk at John O’Groats Restaurant, and owner Paul Tyler was too busy greeting customers he hadn’t seen in months to worry much about potential for confusion.

“We as a business cannot have people coming in without masks until the city of Los Angeles says otherwise,” Tyler said. “My entire staff has been vaccinated, and until otherwise notified by the city of Los Angeles, we are going to continue requiring masks inside the restaurant. Aren’t we supposed to be beholden to the city of Los Angeles health department?”

He said things have been smooth, with no one complaining about having to wear a mask.

“We’ve been doing real well. Our patio is full, and if we could have more tables inside, we would be doing even better,” he said.


Many national chains were quick to make a decision on the new mask policy. Walmart Inc., the country’s largest private employer, said it would no longer require vaccinated workers and shoppers to wear masks, according to the Wall Street Journal. Trader Joe’s also eased its mask policy, USA Today reported, as did Costco.

Those retailers will still have to require masks in states where mandates are in place, including California.

Retailers still requiring masks include Target, Home Depot, CVS and Aldi.

L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the state and county will review the federal recommendations to “make sensible adjustments to the orders that are currently in place.”

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health next meets on May 20 to discuss statewide guidance.