Masking Around

Since Governor Jay Inslee announced the end of the mask mandate in mid-February, local and regional media have given us a steady drumbeat of opinions.

Since Governor Jay Inslee announced the end of the mask mandate in mid-February, local and regional media have given us a steady drumbeat of opinions. We’ve heard from hospital administrators. We’ve heard from school districts and from parents.

The very first local reaction stories focused on business owners, and since then there have been regular check-ins on both those happily leaving the mandate behind and those who will continue to require customers to mask up.

But hasn’t anyone locally checked in with workers? Because, while governments and business owners are the ones setting Covid protocols, it’s the workers — especially in the service and retail industries — who have to enforce the policies and endure unpredictable reactions (to put it mildly) from patrons.

So how do Spokane workers feel about the lifting of the mask mandate?

In case you missed it
Governor Jay Inslee initially set March 21st as the mask mandate’s expiration date for most indoor spaces. On Monday he shortened the timeline to March 12th, coordinating with Oregon and California in selecting this new date, and following updated guidelines from the CDC.

I asked around, polling 20 Spokane retail and service workers. Using an extremely scientific set of three possible responses — inspired by the late film critics Siskel and Ebert — I gave the options: “Thumbs up, thumbs down, and neutral or mixed emotions (thumbs sideways, I suppose).”

The answers varied, and in some surprising ways.

A pie chart showing the 50% of workers polled said "Thumbs Up," 30% said "Thumbs Down" and 20% were "Neutral/Mixed" about the mask mandate ending.
Poll conducted between Feb. 19 – 23, 2022

Before Covid vaccines were widely available, “kitchen line cook” was one of the highest-risk positions of the pandemic with the highest Covid-related mortality rate. However, a line cook I talked to said, “I’m all for it. I’m into it, ‘cause I’m triple-vaxxed.”

As for the front of the house, a server at Satellite Diner said she’s “very happy about” the mandate’s end too.

Covid has transformed what it means to be a server. Many industry workers — especially women — reported a spike in pandemic-related sexual harassment and decline in tips. Not only were servers closer to germs (touching dirty glasses and used napkins, interacting with unmasked diners) but many were forced to take on the additional role of Mask Enforcer or Vaccine Card Checker.

It’s difficult for a tipped worker to safely strike a balance between pleasing a customer and drawing necessary Covid boundaries. “Hey there. Do you have a mask with you tonight? We have extras” might be met with responses like: “You are clearly on a power trip!” or “My mom’s a nurse, and she says masks are completely worthless.” (Both are real reactions I’ve heard.)

One bartender in West Central expects a similar dynamic to continue, and that the sight of a fellow mask-wearer, post-mandate, still “lets you know who your friends are gonna be.” He believes “assholes who aren’t gonna wear it aren’t gonna wear it anyway,” regardless of mandate status.

THUMBS UP: “It will make my job easier.”

Though servers and bartenders aren’t healthcare workers, they have worked on the frontlines of intense Covid risk, adult tantrums, and heightened customer entitlement. Many who were in favor of lifting the mandate expressed weariness after two years of those kinds of conflicts.

Russell Bentley, a bartender at Baby Bar, told me about a man who plopped himself down on the bar floor to protest the establishment’s mask requirement. Bentley says he and his girlfriend Claire, who works at a bookstore downtown, are both “tired of fighting with people” about masks and look forward to the upcoming change.

“I’m hopeful that it means we’re actually coming out on the other side” of Covid, says Bentley. He adds, “It’ll be nice to have a return to normalcy. Being able to see people’s faces, not being reminded of the pandemic.”

However, some “thumbs up” responders expressed cautious excitement, adding they were “a little scared” too.

Two bar bouncers I spoke with approved of ditching masks, saying, “I feel like it’s fine” and, “It will make my job easier.” But two others were angry.

THUMBS DOWN: “Not enough time has gone by.”

Bar bouncer John Williams, 22, of Lucky You Lounge, said, “It pisses me off. We’re just gonna have to put them back on. I’m leaving mine on.”

And just because staff are sick of enforcing the mandate doesn’t mean all are happy to see it go. Dylan Houghton, 22, a receptionist at a tattoo and body piercing shop, writes that he’s feeling “mad/sad/worried” about the mandate’s end.

“I’ve worked customer service through the entirety of the pandemic,” Houghton says. “I’ve had to deal with a lot of people that won’t wear masks — some of them calling me slurs, recording me, throwing things at me, and coughing at me.”

Dylan’s workplace will continue to require masks after March 12, so he still feels “incredibly anxious” about ongoing harassment for enforcing masks. “In terms of the general landscape,” Houghton says, “I worry about the inevitable spike in Covid that will come along with this and push us further away from having Covid under control enough to resume ‘normal’ lives.”

Aaron Bocook, a 39-year-old door person at a downtown bar, has had unmasked patrons “just walk away” when he confronts them. But he echoes Houghton’s “inevitable spike” concern: “Historically pandemics last at least three years, and we’re only at two. There’s just gonna be another spike. Not enough time has gone by.”

This caution is shared by some members of the public health community, and infectious disease experts aren’t entirely convinced by the CDC’s adjusted guidance. Some told NPR they will continue to mask.

And workers in Spokane County, specifically, might be uniquely justified in their concern.

By now the federal government has made it clear they’re shifting from a national pandemic response to a state-level and county-by-county philosophy. Though Spokane County is currently labeled a “medium” risk, about nine counties in Washington are still classified as “high.” Plus, neighboring Idaho is a “hot spot.” While the biggest hot spots are concentrated in Southern Idaho, and not the Panhandle, vaccinations remain low throughout Idaho, as well as in far-Eastern Washington counties near Spokane.

County-by-county vaccine data map retrieved Mar. 1 from The New York Times

NEUTRAL: “I’ll still wear one, but…”

As for workers who said they felt neutral or mixed about the mandate’s end, the most common response was something along the lines of: “I’ll still wear one, but …” or, “Well, my workplace will still require them after March.”

School bus driver Claire Fieberg, 31, said, “If everything was better, I’d be stoked, but I feel like that’s not the case.”

Many mixed-feelings folks mentioned immunocompromised people and children too young for the vaccine when discussing the benefits of public masking. They used words like “nuance” and “certain exceptions.”

One bartender in Browne’s Addition — recalling May 2021 when the CDC announced vaccinated people could go maskless, then reversed course when the Delta variant emerged — exhibited skepticism that our coming mask-free phase will stick: “Oh, it’s gonna be a great two months,” he quipped.

Regardless of whether they thought the end of the mandate was smart, most workers expressed relief for the end of battles with patrons. A retail clerk at Zanies head shop said that while he’ll remain masked to protect relatives going through chemotherapy, he recognizes, “It’ll be nice not to have to babysit adults.”

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