Peninsula businesses' approach to masking varies

Jun 29, 2020

Cloth face masks for sale hang on display at the Kenai Walmart on Monday, June 29, 2020 in Kenai, Alaska.
Credit Elizabeth Earl / KDLL

When the pandemic began shutting down schools and businesses in March, the best advice to avoid getting sick and getting others sick was to stay home as much as possible. As the weeks and months dragged on, though, it became clear that just staying home wasn’t really going to be possible. So businesses began reopening, and when they did, some of the employees were masked.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing a cloth face covering whenever going out, primarily to avoid giving the virus to someone else if you are asymptomatic. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services highly recommends wearing a mask in public settings when it’s hard to socially distance, like in grocery stores or other indoor retail facilities. Because of the shortness of supply, both agencies are recommending people make cloth face coverings or use cloth to cover their noses and mouths, as opposed to using medical PPE, which medical workers need.

There’s been resistance to wearing masks, though, both in the public and among businesses. Anchorage implemented a city-wide mask mandate for all common indoor facilities starting Monday as a way to keep the economy going while preventing the further spread of coronavirus.

Businesses in the Kenai-Soldotna area have a variety of different ways of handling it. When Everything Bagels in Soldotna reopened, the employees were wearing masks. Owner Pamela Parker said it wasn’t really a big change for the employees—frequent sanitation is already a staple in the food business. The masks were just an extra step.

"We’ve already got handwashing that’s happening multiple times, sometimes five or six times within a fifteen minute window, depending on what you’re working on," she said. "Gloves, anytime you’re touching something in front of a customer. Additional sanitation of tables, commonly touched surfaces—that just happens in the food service industry anyway. So really the only addition to the safety protocols was the masks I asked the girls to wear when we opened back up our dining area."

Customers aren’t required to wear masks inside Everything Bagels, but the employees are doing their best to keep their distance and wear masks every time they’re in close interaction. Parker said they’re aware of the consequences if one employee gets sick.

"From the beginning I’ve kind of been operating under the assumption that if one of our employees gets sick and tests positive, our business will be shut down for a few weeks," she said. "So it’s kind of something that we’ve all acknowledged at the store. So I’ve asked my staff to make sure that they’re staying safe when they’re not in the store also, kind of limiting their bubble, because they do work in food service, they are in front of the community quite a bit. So just making sure what they’re doing on their end is safe, and then again trying to put these protocols in place in the store. We’ve been asking our girls to wear masks, and I think it helps encourage some customers to do it. You don’t feel as weird walking into a store with a mask of if the employees are wearing one."

At Alyeska Tire, customers are required to wear masks, too. COO Craig Wortham said employees wear masks and have masks available for customers who may not have one on them. The reactions have been mixed, though he says the staff has been understanding and helpful.

"Some people have been very, very kind," he said. "I’ve received phone calls at the wee hours of the morning, extending their appreciation, more specifically from doctors and medical community and first responders. They’ve been very positive. We’ve had our tribulations and trials at individual stores, though."

Both cited concerns about community safety. Wortham said it’s in line with what Alyeska has always done in its communities.

"Alyeska Tire for 40 years has prioritize the customers’ needs and safety first, and the employees’ needs and safety second," he said. "It really wasn’t a hard thing for us to come to terms with. It was really easy, as a matter of fact."

The state has released graphics and resources for businesses that include mask promotion and social distancing, but there is no general statewide requirement for business employees to wear masks.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@kdll.org.