Ari Gersen, owner of Longfellow Books in Portland, says the bookstore will keep curbside pickup options and a floor space that allows for social distancing for the time being. It will also require masks inside the store for at least a couple of weeks until the staff is fully vaccinated. Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

Bookstore owner Ari Gersen plans to keep his mask on after the state’s mandate expires Monday, and he’ll ask his staff and customers to do the same, at least for a little while longer.

But when he drops that requirement, another issue arises – how will he tell if that unmasked customer is fully vaccinated or unvaccinated and ignoring health recommendations?

“This is the one piece of the guidance I really have a challenge with. There is nothing in place for people to show they are vaccinated, but if you are not vaccinated, you have to wear a mask,” Gersen said. “I don’t know how that is supposed to work.”

Beginning Monday, customers across Maine will encounter a patchwork of masking and social distancing requirements in private businesses after the state drops nearly all coronavirus prevention measures.

Many establishments will allow fully vaccinated customers to come and go without wearing a mask, while recommending unvaccinated people continue using one. But absent a state requirement to provide proof of vaccination, it will be the honor system.

Longfellow Books, in Portland’s Monument Square, will require masks for another couple of weeks – enough time for all his staff to be fully vaccinated, said owner Gersen.

Jesse and Meredith Sincock, of Brooklyn, New York, browse around at Longfellow Books on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

“Our approach to this entire pandemic has been first priority is that the staff feel safe, second priority is that we make sure that we are being leaders in the community in terms of safety,” he said. The bookstore was opened last summer, but closed to all but curbside sales during the winter COVID-19 surge. It just restarted in-person sales this month.

Under the new state rules masks are still required in schools and child care centers. Federal restrictions require masking in public transportation.

Maine will also drop capacity limits, physical distancing, enhanced sanitation and other restrictions codified in industry-specific coronavirus “checklists.” Those requirements will be replaced this week with a general guidance document that offers recommended practices and links to specific CDC guidelines.

Managing masking between vaccinated and unvaccinated people is “not practicable” and the state will not require enforcement from businesses, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said last week on a monthly call with business owners. Private establishments may adopt restrictions or require proof of vaccination if they wish, she added.

“The state of Maine is not going to enforce this idea of different policies for vaccinated and unvaccinated people, nor do we expect businesses to do so,” Lambrew said.

Maine abandoned its mask mandate and coronavirus restrictions later than some states, including New Hampshire. But it is being more flexible than states that are requiring masks in public into mid-June. And some, such as Oregon, will require proof of vaccination.

Dropping the mask mandate is welcome news for those weary of coronavirus restrictions and unfortunate for those concerned about lifting restrictions too early, as Maine records hundreds of new COVID-19 cases daily and people perish from the disease every week.

In between, private establishments find themselves having to decide how to handle the new reality, keep employees safe and customers comfortable, while not provoking patrons with strong views on masking.

‘You just have to hope someone’s being honest’

“The whole thing has been tough, everyone is sick of it. I think we talked about maybe keeping masks on until the end of the month or something, but I don’t think we will. I think you have to do something on Monday because people are going to expect it,” said John Reny, owner of the Renys chain of department stores.

Renys stores will follow the new guidance. Fully vaccinated customers and staff can come and go without wearing masks, but no one will be checking vaccination status. About 60 percent of the company’s 500-person workforce is vaccinated, according to a recent internal poll, and it is trying to entice more with generous store gift cards.

“You just have to hope someone’s being honest; if they come in without a mask, they must be vaccinated,” Reny said.

No one at a small, independent business wants to be checking customers’ vaccination status, so many plan to keep mask policies in place for the foreseeable future, said Mary Alice Scott, Executive Director of Portland Buy Local.

“The message we’ve been giving folks is that the best way to support local businesses is to follow the rules they have in place and wear a mask when they ask you to do so, even if the state’s rules don’t require it for you personally,” Scott said.

L.L. Bean will adopt new the guidance Monday, but employees have to wear masks for at least another month to allow for vaccination numbers to increase, said Public Relations Director Amanda Hannah.

“After July 1, employees will no longer have to wear a mask but may choose to do so,” Hannah said.

Some local restaurants intend to keep pandemic restrictions in place for now. Diners at Salvage BBQ and Local 188 in Portland will still have to wear masks when not seated at a table, and owner Jay Villani doesn’t anticipate expanding seating or hours soon.

“We are going to go slow, I want to make sure everyone is comfortable. I have one more staff member who needs to get one more shot; after we get over that hurdle I think everyone is going to breathe easier,” Villani said.

Restrictions aren’t the biggest limiting factor for his business, he added.

“Right now, it is the labor crunch that is more affecting any changes than mandates and restrictions,” he said. “It is hard to expand any sort of hours or seating capacity without help.”

Dan Drouin, the owner of Stockhouse Restaurant and Sports Pub, said he plans to allow fully vaccinated employees to stop wearing masks, take down the plexiglass from the bar, and add back some seating. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Employers require proof of vaccination

Dan Drouin is taking down the Plexiglas from around the bar and putting the dining room back the way it was pre-pandemic at The Stockhouse Restaurant and Sports Pub in Westbrook. He’s kept track of his workers who are fully vaccinated and plans to allow them to go unmasked after Monday. Drouin and others require employees to provide proof of inoculation.

“I would say most of them are ready to go without a mask,” he said. “I think people feel really confident that their chances of getting it is really slim.”

Even though he plans to put the dining room back together, Drouin will leave plenty of space between tables so people don’t feel jammed together. The restaurant’s busy chicken wing nights aren’t returning right away.

“I think we need to remember we need to make people feel comfortable,” he said. “I think people have become accustomed to having some space; that is going to be a thing.”

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah tried to offer clarity about the state’s new approach during a press conference last week.

“Some people may be comfortable chucking their mask and going outside without a mask on or going into places because they are fully vaccinated without needing to wear a mask. Others might not be,” he said.

Considering the state’s vaccination rate – about 49 percent of the state’s total population was fully vaccinated as of Friday – Maine is as well positioned as any other state to move in this new direction, Shah added.

“Even if there happens to be someone who blends in, who is not vaccinated, who for whatever reason decides not to do the considerate and respectful and generous thing and wear a mask, the likelihood of where we are epidemiologically that that person may silently have COVID and give it to someone who is not vaccinated is low,” Shah said. “It is not zero, but it is small. That is because of our vaccination rate.”

Rick Tucker, the president of Maine Hardware in Portland, at the store on Friday. Tucker said starting Monday the management will not require employees or customers to wear a mask if they do not want to, but it is keeping the Plexiglas protectors for the time being. Tucker said the store is at about 99 percent vaccination for its staff. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Maine Hardware on St. John Street in Portland will follow the new guidance from the state and CDC, just as it has all along, said President Rick Tucker.

“Once the mask mandate has been lifted I am going to leave it to the people,” Tucker said. “We are certainly not going to be policing the doors and figuring out who has been vaccinated.” Most of the store’s staff is inoculated, but the few who are not will have to wear masks, he added.

Relaxed masking rules also add a sense of normality – now Tucker can finally see the faces of his staff and customers after more than a year.

“It’s been a different style of communication. I am looking forward to seeing people smile again,” he said. “It is funny, there are people who started working here since the pandemic; I barely know what they look like.”

Patchwork of rules across the country

States across the country moved at different speeds to reopen fully or maintain restrictions. Texas removed its mask mandate and allowed businesses to reopen fully in March. Last week Gov. Greg Abbott banned local governments from requiring masks in public or in schools. California plans to keep its mask rules and restrictions in place until mid-June, and the New Jersey governor intends to keep indoor masks rules.  In Oregon, fully vaccinated people can go unmasked inside public spaces, but will have to offer proof of their inoculation status.

Closer to home, Maine’s rules are slightly more relaxed than in Vermont, which requires masks for unvaccinated people, or Massachusetts, where coronavirus restrictions lift on May 29 and a state of emergency will expire in three weeks. Neighboring New Hampshire ended its mask mandate more than a month ago.

Some private companies and venues may begin requiring proof of vaccination for customers and employees. Passengers on several cruise ship lines have to be vaccinated and a number of professional sports stadiums and entertainment venues offer tickets in vaccinated-only sections.

Major national chains, including Walmart, Target, Starbucks and CVS, aligned their mask protocols with CDC guidance. Others, such as the Hannaford store chain, will continue requiring everyone to wear a mask inside.

Maine businesses taking conservative approach

Portland Yoga Project will keep masks on indoors at its studio for the time being, said owner Jess Emilfarb. The speed of changing mandates caught the studio off guard – it just reopened for limited in-person classes this month.

“We don’t feel ready,” Emilfarb said. “We want to make sure everyone feels like they can come in and participate in a class without feeling anxious. One of the easiest ways to control for that right now is to make sure everyone is masked in the studio.”

The imminent repeal of the state’s masking rules is a welcome change for Scott Gillespie, owner of Saco Sport and Fitness gym. Gillespie saw a 25 percent drop-off in business in November, when a statewide mask mandate was enacted during the second coronavirus surge.

Starting Monday, masks are optional in the gym and recommended for unvaccinated people. Customers’ vaccination records will not be required, but employees have to provide proof of full inoculation to go unmasked.

Gillespie put $100,000 into updates to his air quality and ventilation system and said his gym is less risky for COVID-19 transmission than eating indoors at a restaurant. Still, it will keep plenty of distance between exercise equipment and offer fitness classes with fewer people than before the pandemic.

“I don’t think in our customers, mentally, we can flip a switch and get back to normality in a day. I think it will be a gradual reassimilation,” Gillespie said. “I think this is a transitional point, it is a message from the state that we have reached the summit of the mountain. It is not going to get any worse, it is going to get better.”

Maine Beer Co. in Freeport will take things a little slower, at least for the time being. Masks will be required indoor its Freeport taproom when patrons are not seated at a table. Outside, fully vaccinated patrons can go maskless. Staff have to wear masks for now, and prove full vaccination to shed their face coverings when the company permits, said Communications Manager Anne Marisic.

“It is going to be something we are constantly evaluating,” Marisic said. Things could change week by week, or even day by day. The brewery, like other tourist hot spots, is gearing up for a busy summer.

“We want to make sure people are comfortable and safe,” Marisic said. “We get great feedback from our customers about our COVID precautions. That is trust we don’t want to break. We want to make sure people feel good coming here.”

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