PROVINCETOWN — Kohi Coffee Co., at 199 Commercial St., set back from the sidewalk in a beachfront space, currently has a sign on its front door informing customers as they enter that face masks are “preferred.” That word, polite and not insistent, but printed on a red background shaped like a stop sign, sums up the current confusion on the streets of Outer Cape Cod’s increasingly busy towns.
The sign at Kohi reflects a compromise that the store manager, Diana Galligan, had to make when figuring out how to conduct business in a world that is not truly post-pandemic.
“The rest of the staff and I would feel more comfortable if customers wore masks,” Galligan said. “But I’m also not in a position to turn customers away.”
Even with the sign, Galligan estimates only about 10 percent of the people who come inside are wearing a mask.
“I think everyone is confused right now about what to do,” she said. “People were told that, if they were vaccinated, they no longer had to wear masks, so now they’re not even carrying them around.”
“We have all longed for this moment,” said Centers for Disease Control Director Rochelle Walensky at a White House press briefing on May 13 following the CDC’s announcement that people who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 no longer need to wear masks or socially distance.
At such a moment, it would be easy to miss some details. For example: “You will still need to follow guidance at your workplace and local businesses,” reads a bullet point in the CDC’s announcement. In fact, the law does allow business owners to require masks and even proof of vaccination of staff or customers.
For business owners and managers, it’s a tricky situation. The world that seemed so frozen is now white hot again. The thaw happened fast. Following the CDC’s announcement, Gov. Charlie Baker lifted the state’s remaining Covid-19 restrictions on May 29.
Jeff Peters, the owner of East End Books, said the governor’s order did not give businesses enough time to figure out their next steps. To him, it was “foolish” to lift restrictions on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.
Peters just switched his “masks required” sign to a “masks preferred” sign on June 5. He wanted to consult with the American Booksellers Association and read the CDC’s guidelines and recommendations before making a decision about what to do.
Overall, Provincetown quickly fell into step with the governor.
Informal research conducted for this article uncovered just a few places where masks are still required, including MAP, a boutique on Commercial Street in the West End, as well as Far Land Provisions and East End Market, the two grocery and sandwich shops on Bradford Street.
“We kept the mask requirement to make an easy transition for the people who felt unsafe inside without masks,” said Pauline Fisher, the owner of MAP. “It might be a small number of people, but we err on the side of making everyone comfortable.”
The owners of Far Land and East End Market both cited the safety of their staff as the reason behind their decisions to keep masks mandatory inside their stores.
“We have between three and four hundred people walk through the door every day,” said East End owner Claudio Gervasi. “Each of those people comes in for about five minutes. But my staff comes into contact with all of them for a whole workday.”
Far Land Provisions operated a curbside order and pick-up service throughout most of the pandemic. John Perrone, the only person who died of Covid-19 in Provincetown, had been an employee at the store. Owner Tom Boland said Perrone’s death is on his mind as he considers the store’s procedures.
“We felt the announcements from Baker and the CDC happened kind of fast,” said Boland. “We had new employees who weren’t fully vaccinated yet. For their safety, we decided to continue the mask requirement until they got all their jabs.”
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the law allows employers to require employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for Covid-19. The only exceptions would be people for whom a disability or “sincerely held religious belief” prevents vaccination.
Employers requiring proof of vaccination must keep that information confidential.
Gavriela Bogin-Farber, the president of the Mass. Employment Lawyers Association, recommends that whatever policies employers implement, they “apply them equally across the board.”
For employers, workers, customers, and everyone, it seems, the situation is evolving.
Walk down Commercial Street now and no longer will you be “entering a mandatory mask zone.” On that walk, you’ll see masks haven’t just been lifted, they’ve been left at home. You might wonder why that one woman still has her N95 on. You might walk into a shop and experience a moment’s hesitation about being indoors with all these breathing, salivating, sweating, sneezing strangers. Or you might find the street an Eden of proximity of noses and mouths and chins and a beautiful boy on a bike, stretching his neck out to the breeze caressing his bare face.
The polite caution evident in Kohi’s sign seems like a reasonable strategy.