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Mask order creating paralysis by analysis for many Waco-area businesses

Mask order creating paralysis by analysis for many Waco-area businesses

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A photo from late March 2020 shows a sparsely populated lot at Central Texas Marketplace shortly after shelter-in-place orders took effect. Those businesses now are weighing whether to require customers to continue wearing masks when the state mandate is lifted next week.

To mask or not to mask. Business owners and managers are mulling that option, with many facing paralysis by analysis as out-of-state corporate headquarters weigh a response to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s pronouncement.

Abbott said no one entering public buildings, including stores and restaurants, will face a state mandate to cover their faces. The new policy will take effect Wednesday. He left the door open to establishments wanting to apply their own masking requirements, and the new order states “individuals are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings over the nose and mouth” in situations where the previous order required them.

That in mind, many local businesses representatives tempered their comments on any reaction, shifting decisions elsewhere. Most suggested rules mandating face coverings would remain in force, but said deliberations continue at the executive level.

“As of today, we have not received direction on how to proceed,” said Ashley Vigil, associate manager at La Madeleine restaurant at Central Texas Marketplace. “The café requires masks now, in compliance with local regulations, though they can be removed for eating and drinking.”

In fact, few stores in the marketplace, dominated by national and regional chains, could or would reveal specifics about policies going forward.

“At this time, masks are mandatory and we’ve not heard anything different,” Cabela’s Outpost employee said before abruptly ending the call.

The response was similar at discounter Five Below, with employees chatting back-and-forth during the phone call and reaching consensus the store had heard nothing. They suggested a call to headquarters in Philadelphia.

“The company has made no determination,” said Holly Schatte, senior assistant manager at the Kirkland’s home and garden store.

Brianna Register, an employee at Nothing Bundt Cakes, furnished a slice of clarity.

“As of today, masks are recommended but not required,” Register said.

A new sign replaced an old one making masks mandatory, though Abbott’s new orders do not take effect for another week.

Cindy Rendleman, James Avery Artisan Jeweler district manager, said, “We are waiting for direction from the corporate office, probably won’t know anything until the first of next week.”

She confirmed James Avery now requires masks in its stores, including Waco’s in Central Texas Marketplace.

“We do ask everyone to join us in our masquerade policy,” she joked.

Brice Lawson, who manages Bed Bath & Beyond, retrieved a phone number to corporate, saying it must clarify the chain’s stance on masks.

Stacey Keating, spokesperson for the company that owns Richland Mall, CBL Properties, released a statement, saying, “We continue to encourage customers to follow (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines, which includes the continued wearing of masks or face coverings, but it will not be required in mall common areas.”

Individual retailers will be able to require masks in their spaces, she said.

“Our position is that our mall office employees, vendors, as well as security and maintenance will be required to wear masks in mall common areas and while interacting with others,” Keating wrote.

A staffer at Dillard’s in the mall, where the retailer has two locations and controls more square footage than any other user, said the location is awaiting direction from the corporate office.

Likewise, Bath & Body Works at the mall said corporate must address company policy. It had not returned a call by late Wednesday.

Elsewhere, the Target store on Bosque Boulevard said it now requires masks, but will make a determination early next week on Abbott’s directive.

The Texas Restaurant Association, meanwhile, lauded the governor.

“What was originally planned as a two-week closure to bend the curve has become nearly one year of unprecedented challenges, wreaking havoc on the restaurant industry and families across Texas,” according to an association statement.

Sam Castillo, who owns La Fiesta restaurant on Franklin Avenue and Wacool Tacos and Tamales in the Union Hall food hall downtown, said he has no quarrel with the governor’s decision. He said the vast majority of diners already remove their masks when they are seated.

“If the governor says yes, we would be hard pressed to tell customers no,” Castillo said. “It’s already hard to enforce. If the governor’s lifting the ban, and if local officials and the police won’t enforce it … I’m fine with it.”

Waco Restaurant Association President Kyle Citrano said his research shows Abbott’s order is vast in its application, practically returning dining conditions to those before the pandemic. He called it a free-for-all, though he stopped short of criticizing the measure. He said some restaurants and some patrons, out of an abundance of caution, will continue to crave masks.

Markus Perez, who manages Longhorn Steakhouse, said the restaurant will not demand that customers wear masks. He said the steakhouse in Waco will follow corporate standards for cleanliness, and employees will continue to wear masks. Customers get to call their own shots.

City of Waco and McLennan County continue to formulate policy and will make an announcement soon, officials said.

Waco Transit will continue to require riders to wear masks.

Waco’s major health care systems responded clearly, with a unified voice. Their policies will not change in response to the new executive order.

“Each healthcare system will continue with existing safety protocols, including mask requirements for everyone who enters our facilities, continuing to practice social distancing at each of our sites of care, and continuing with COVID-19 screenings,” according to a joint statement Wednesday evening from Ascension Providence and Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center. “We believe these evidence-based practices are in the best interest of the community, and we will continue to take every precaution to protect all of those we are committed to serve, including our frontline workers, our patients and our community.

“With more COVID-19 vaccines on the horizon, there is hope around the corner. In the meantime, we must remain vigilant in order to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.”


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