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Small business owners face backlash for requiring masks

Some say they've experienced uncomfortable confrontations, exchanges of choice word and, in some cases, online abuse.
Kate Hackett manages Beehive Wool Shop, where face masks are still required.

Some small business owners who are taking a slower approach to relaxing COVID restrictions in their stores say they have been subjected to flak at their front doors and on social media by those fed up with wearing masks.

While they say it’s only a fraction of the customers they see, four who spoke to the Times Colonist said they had experienced uncomfortable confrontations, exchanges of choice words and, in some cases, online abuse because of their decision to require customers to continue wearing masks.

“The entire pandemic our customers have been great, but as we get to this point where there’s a light at the end of a tunnel, it seems people are just done,” said Jamie Owens, owner of Hide + Seek Coffee on Oak Bay Avenue.

Owens said while she understands many people are fed up with masks, there is a distinct lack of empathy from some, who fail to see that mask policies are about small businesses protecting their staff, and their families.

“You may think as a customer your risk is low, but what about the barista who sees 150 to 300 people a day, or the grocery store worker who is seeing people in the thousands,” said Owens, who has been getting harassing notes for her mask policy on social media, where she was also told she should be locked up for child abuse because she posted a picture of her and her daughter sporting masks.

She’s not alone.

Since the province ruled masks are now recommended — rather than required — in indoor public settings for all people 12 and older who are not yet fully vaccinated, many of the region’s small businesses held the line on masks and have had to face annoyed customers.

Valerie Huggett, owner of the Beehive Wool Shop on Douglas Street, said despite a few upset customers – she can count them on one hand — she intends to maintain her policy until September.

“I have staff that are of various ages and a lot of us have not received a second dose yet, so it’s to protect staff,” she said. “We will be taking it slow but sure.”

Huggett said they have had incredible support from their customers since the start of the pandemic, and it hasn’t wavered since the July 1 mask-rule change. “We’ve had one or two that have rights issues or have turned around when we offered them masks and explained our policy,” she said. “In general we’ve been very happy, but it’s safety first.”

Eryn Beattie, owner of the Luna Collective on Fort Street, which sells handmade and vintage goods, said her decision to maintain the mask requirement for customers was all about her staff.

“I have a pretty young staff, there’s only three of us, and we’re all under 30 and none of us have had our second shots, so really it’s to keep the staff protected,” she said.

Beattie, like the other business owners, has had only a handful of people not willing to put on a mask, but one ­confrontation left one of her staff members shaken.

“That was really unfortunate, but for the most part people are really supportive of the choices I have made,” she said.

Brendan Rolfe of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said with rules relaxing, the mask issue was bound to rear its head again.

Rolfe said federation members had to deal with a lot of it last year and it only died down when provinces made mask-wearing mandatory.

“We’re hearing about it again, and it puts business owners in a tough position,” he said.

The federation recommends including staff in mask decisions and other health policies so they buy in to the company plan, offering plenty of clear signage to customers detailing the policy, and not engaging with people who are in the store to take a stand on mask rights or freedom.

Brodie Cawdell, of Gauntlet Games on Hillside Avenue, said the store maintained its mask policy because gamers stay for hours at a time.

He said for the most part, his customers are fine with the policy, although now that masks are not required in most places, there is the chance they might forget to bring one.

“So we have restocked masks and will provide one,” he said, noting so far, he hasn’t had more than a “huff” in response to the policy from those not carrying masks. “Anyway, I can’t really get mad at anyone. Everyone’s weird right now.”