As Orange County lifted its indoor mask mandate Monday and the Chapel Hill community transitions to optional mask use, business owners are looking to change their mask policies as well — and some already have.
Despite the county's decision, businesses and other private organizations have the discretion to require patrons to wear masks.
On Franklin Street this week, mask-wearing was varied in most stores, but some signs requesting that masks are kept on remain posted on windows and doors.
Guidance from the county and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been valuable for some business owners in determining their mask policy, especially as more customers feel comfortable with indoor dining and shopping.
“The businesses are hopeful that people will come out now that the weather is getting better and numbers are down,” Matt Gladdek, executive director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, said.
Kristian Bawcom, the owner and operator of Four Corners, said that the restaurant will be moving to mask-optional operations for both employees and customers.
Bawcom said he has followed CDC, Orange County and North Carolina guidelines when implementing mask regulations.
“First and foremost, it’s all about safety for customers and for employees,” he said.
Other Chapel Hill business owners have also been thinking about and moving toward mask-optional operations.
Olmaz Jewelers opened in November 2019, and has had a mask requirement in place for almost as long as it has been open due to COVID-19 guidelines.
For Elie Abou-Rjeileh, co-owner of Olmaz Jewelers, moving to a mask-optional policy would be a new experience because pandemic operations have been the business' "normal."
“It’s going to feel so weird being without a mask,” Abou-Rjeileh said. “Most of my clients, I’ve known them with a mask, so it will be nice to see their faces again.”
He said he has been unable to see his customers' reactions when they are choosing jewelry for special life moments.
“We are in a happy business," Abou-Rjeileh said. "People come in for special occasions, to celebrate their life moments from engagements to anniversaries to holidays. You always see a smile on their face when you present them with a piece of jewelry.
"Now we get to see that again.”
Orange County's vaccination and booster rates are at a level where he feels more comfortable lifting the business' mask mandate, Abou-Rjeileh said.
Some businesses keep the mandate
Even with a rise in mask-optional policies, some businesses are continuing to require masks.
In an announcement posted on its website, Epilogue said it would keep the mask requirement for patrons when inside the store, unless they are actively eating or drinking.
"Many are still unvaccinated or uninoculated or immunocompromised, so let's continue to be kind to one another as we navigate this shared reality," the announcement said.
Rumors Chapel Hill will also continue requiring masks indoors and is enforcing its 16-person maximum capacity — at least through the end of this month.
At the end of the month, the store plans to reevaluate based on how the rest of the community deals with the mask-optional shift, Molly Schonert, an assistant manager at Rumors, said.
In the event that Rumors shifts to a mask-optional policy, it plans to continue operating at a limited capacity and enforce masks for staff members, she said.
“We probably will always require our employees to wear masks, just to kind of keep that going,” Schonert said. “Customers might see us wearing a mask and might want to wear a mask as well.”
As of Monday, 76 percent of the Orange County population ages 5 and older is fully vaccinated with two doses of Moderna or Pfizer or one dose of Johnson & Johnson, according to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
The county's mask mandate was lifted after its COVID-19 risk level dropped to "medium" under CDC guidelines, which take case count and hospitalizations into consideration. At the time the decision was announced, Orange County had less than 200 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the previous week.
Even with the improving metrics, some Chapel Hill residents said they will keep their masks on.
UNC junior Molly Herring, biology and global studies major, said even though she is fully vaccinated and boosted, she will wear her mask unless actively eating or drinking.
“I think that everyone should be able to choose whether or not they’re comfortable having a mask on indoors or not,” she said. “Particularly for businesses, I think it should be up to the business whether or not they require masks indoors, and that can just be on a case by case basis.”
Bawcom said he will not require masks for employees or customers and that most of his staff is fully vaccinated by choice.
“I do think everybody is definitely ready to get out,” he said. “I think that we saw a little taste of it last spring when the mandate was first lifted. And all of a sudden, we had a huge surge in business, and I’m hoping for the same, but we’ll see.”
Abou-Rjeileh said the shift to mask-optional will provide more business to the Chapel Hill economy as a whole.
“Now that things are a little bit more open again, we’re hoping that more people are going to be out shopping and they would choose a local, not just jewelry store, any local business to support," he said.
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