Boris Tsang/Sun File Photo

Ithaca Commons in October 2020.

August 13, 2021

As COVID Cases Rise, Ithaca Businesses Implement a Patchwork of Policies

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Take a stroll down the Ithaca Commons, and you will find freshly printed signs decorating the windows of many businesses. Following an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the county and new recommendations from the CDC, these colorful signs inform customers of updated in-store public health measures.

From mask requirements to vaccine requirements, businesses in the area have implemented a patchwork of different COVID-19 policies informed by county public health recommendations and tailored to the specific needs of the respective establishments.

On July 30, The Tompkins County Health Department issued a new health advisory encouraging local organizations and individuals to wear a mask while indoors regardless of vaccination status. The countywide health advisory conforms to updated federal guidance from the CDC following increased transmission of the more contagious delta variant. The federal guidance states that in communities with over 50 cases per 100,000 residents, fully vaccinated individuals should consider wearing a mask while indoors.

Tompkins County reached that threshold at the end of July, triggering the advisory. As anxieties and confusion mount, Tompkins County government officials hosted a virtual COVID-19 update on August 5th to discuss vaccinations, mask guidance, and community reopening.

According to Tompkins County Medical Director Dr. Bill Klepack, the delta variant accounts for over 80% of cases nationwide, and it spreads more easily between individuals. In addition to recommending wearing masks while indoors, the officials at the meeting pushed vaccinations as the most effective way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and prevent new variants.

“The numbers that you see in terms of preventing severe disease and hospitalization really, really show that you should get vaccinated,” Dr. Andreia de Lima of Cayuga Medical Center said. “And the mask wearing is not even just for you, it’s to protect other people so they don’t get infected…The safest thing to do is to wear masks again. We did it before, we can do it again.”

Despite the changed guidance, Cayuga Health System CEO Dr. Martin Stallone urged community members to stay calm, especially considering the high vaccination rate in the county— approximately 69% of individuals ages 18 and older have completed the vaccine series. Although cases have spiked with the prevalence of the delta variant, the number of COVID positive patients requiring hospitalization remains extremely low.

“Even with the variant, the immunization is very effective,” he said. “Whatever immunization, all of the platforms are very effective at avoiding the need for hospitalizations, ICU-level care, and death.”

The recommendations in the health advisory do not amount to a mask mandate, but it does ask individuals to practice caution for the benefit of the community. This includes wearing a face covering to lower the risk of transmitting the virus. In general, the community — on the individual and organizational level — has been receptive to the recommendations.

“I think people are tired of the whole masking thing, but they also are understanding that as a community, we’ve done a lot to get as far as we have,” Deputy County Administrator Amie Hendrix said. “Seeing the rise in cases here in Tompkins County I think they understand that the health department is really weighing the safety of the community when we put out any of these advisories.”

New York state has not implemented new statewide mask rules. Nevertheless, following the new federal guidance, many large national corporations with locations in the county have reinstated mask requirements for their workers in many stores, regardless of vaccination status. Store patrons are highly encouraged — though not required — to wear a face covering. Some of these retailers and restaurants include Wegmans, Target, McDonald’s, and Home Depot.

With more autonomy when it comes to formulating store-specific policies, private businesses in the Ithaca area can decide to enforce their own mandates and recommendations. The health department has been in communication with these establishments in the area to help them navigate the evolving guidance.

“We did follow up directly with businesses and work with our various economic development partners to get out information about what a recommendation means and an advisory means versus a mandatory masking order like was done last year,” Hendrix said. “We have pretty consistent communication with the businesses as we start to make these decisions.”

When the health department put out new guidelines earlier this summer that relieved vaccinated individuals from the mask mandate, many businesses loosened their mask policies for employees and patrons. According to Kristina Thelen, business development director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, even though the most recent guidance falls short of a mask mandate, most businesses in the downtown area are once again requiring masks.

“The majority of businesses are taking the guidance very seriously and to heart,” she said. “Now the majority of businesses are very much prominently back on the train of just requiring masks.”

Angry Moms Records on the Commons is one of the establishments that has recently updated its masking policies on the heels of the new health advisory. Earlier this summer, the store exempted vaccinated individuals from wearing masks. However, citing fears of the delta variant, the store now requires that all employees and patrons wear a face covering while inside.

“We were kind of doing the honor system — if you’re vaccinated you don’t have to wear a mask — but now with the delta thing, we’re trying to get everyone to wear masks,” owner

George Johann said. “We had been going back and forth, and then once the health department made its announcement, we decided just to do it.”

For some businesses, the updated guidance has had little effect on in-store masking policies. Even when New York state lifted the mask mandate, many stores decided to keep their mask requirement intact. Thelen said that a major factor in this decision was the presence of children in the store.

“The majority of folks who do business downtown and have any interaction with children under the age of 12 have never dropped the mask policy, because children under 12 have not been eligible to be vaccinated as of yet,” she said. “So there’s a number of businesses who never stopped requiring masks.”

Odyssey Bookstore, situated on West Green Street, is one of these businesses. Owner Laura Larson said that she and the bookstore manager discussed the mask requirement almost every week, and decided to stay on “the more cautious side of best practices.” This summer the store considered relaxing the requirement, however, the store quickly dropped this possibility with growing prevalence of the delta variant and the health advisory.

“Earlier, cases were really low and we were actually pondering lifting the requirement,” Larson said. “And then the delta cases started going up so we decided not to. So we’ve kept the requirement the entire time.”

Hound and Mare, located within the N Aurora St. Streatery, has taken a slightly different approach to in-store masking policies. When the mask mandate was lifted, the cafe continued to require masks unless customers could show proof of vaccination. Owner Christine Lam felt that this was the safest option for her customers and staff.

“My whole thought behind it was really because I have friends that haven’t been vaccinated, and they were just taking advantage of the fact that everyone was going on the honor code essentially,” she said.

Amid the spike in cases and new recommendations, the store will continue this policy. Although most people have been gracious about it, employees have had to deal with some displeased customers.

“There’s a surprising amount of people who have been very rude,” Lam said. “We’re living in a different world right now, and I just don’t think it is unreasonable to ask for a vaccination card — and if you don’t have one that’s totally fine and it’s up to you — but if you also don’t have a mask on top of that, I just don’t think it is responsible for us to allow that.”

According to Thelen, these decisions are difficult for businesses to make. It not only requires the formulation of the in-store policy, but also decisions about how — and to what extent — to enforce it. Especially after struggling through the pandemic, many businesses fear alienating customers with unfavorable requirements.

“Policing it is also an important part of the whole equation — providing good customer service but also not being at odds constantly with the public,” she said. “There are several places who turn people away if they won’t commit to the policy, but there are some people who aren’t going to turn people away. It just comes down to the confrontation aspect of it and their personal philosophies of customer service and such.”

The Rhine House on W Seneca St. has espoused the policy of turning potential customers away, but not for masking purposes. In order to enter the establishment, individuals must show proof of vaccination via the Excelsior Pass, a physical vaccination card, or a photo of the vaccination card. On a national level, the restaurant industry has been comparatively quicker than other industries to embrace vaccine mandates due to the particular devastation the pandemic generated for the sector.

Many business owners see vaccine requirements as a way to avoid lockdowns and social distancing requirements, which ensure fewer customers and threaten to hamper the industry’s comeback from the worst of the pandemic. Although the vaccination requirement was a difficult decision to make, The Rhine House owner Kate Conroy doesn’t see any “other route towards normalcy.”

“We just decided that enough is enough and we’re going to just see how it goes with doing the vaccine only and see if that’s enough to keep everybody safe,” Conroy said. “It’s a super hard choice and I totally understand why businesses don’t want to do it because you potentially alienate a lot of customers. But I think that could be the fastest route to normalcy, even if it’s the most uncomfortable.”

Even though they have had to turn patrons away, The Rhine House has experienced a generally warm reception to the vaccination requirement.

“It is a bummer when people that we’ve known for years and years and they have been coming in a long time can’t come in because they’re not vaccinated,” Conroy said. “But mostly everybody’s been really gracious about it. I think everyone really understands the reasoning, and this is something we won’t need forever.”

Although The Rhine House has received good feedback for the vaccine requirement, it is not likely that other businesses will follow suit. Thelen does not anticipate that many businesses will require customers to show proof of vaccination due to the “controversial” nature of vaccination requirements.

“Requiring vaccination adds another layer of confrontation and potential pushback as far as quality customer service goes,” she said. “It just becomes even more challenging, and it’s already been a really delicate balance for these businesses to be accommodating and also have these new boundaries.”

Larson said that Odyssey Bookstore would resort to other public health measures in their store before requiring vaccination proof, such as specific distancing rules and limits on the number of people allowed in the store at one time. In addition to the fact that many of their young customers are not able to be vaccinated yet, the activity in a bookstore differs from that of a food and drink establishment.

“I understand [a vaccination requirement] in a restaurant where in order to eat someone has to remove their mask but that’s not the case here,” she said.

The Downtown Ithaca Alliance has played a pivotal role in helping businesses alert their customers of policy changes in a quick and effective manner. One of the main ways they have facilitated communication between businesses and customers is through informative signage. While some signs indicate a strict mask requirement, others simply ask patrons to wear a face covering. Other signs instruct individuals how to properly wear a mask or indicate if a business sells masks.

“We are in quick, constant, and direct communication with our downtown businesses about any changes,” Thelen said. “We’ve also highly encouraged our businesses this entire time to be highly communicative with their customer base, and they have quickly done that this week.”

Many business owners expressed frustration with the updated federal and county guidance. Just as operations were becoming more normal — with the majority of vaccinated customers removing their masks where allowed — the new recommendations feel like a regression.

“We were so close,” Thelen said. “Now it feels like we are right back where we started.”

Conroy cited the exhaustion that industries face amid the ever-changing public health recommendations. She also stressed the importance of community-wide cooperation in order to overcome the challenges presented by the evolving pandemic situation.

“I hope that we get back to normal because I know there’s people across so many industries who are just exhausted,” Conroy said. “Part of living in a community is that everyone has to chip in and help to maintain community health. This is really important, especially in Ithaca.”

This story was originally published by The Ithaca Times as a part of The Cornell Daily Sun Ithaca News Fellowship.