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Businesses Use Honor System To Enforce Mask Rule

Nash Jones
A notice that unvaccinated customers must still wear masks hangs in the window of Michael Thomas Coffee in Albuquerque

It’s been a month since fully-vaccinated New Mexicans were allowed to stop wearing face masks in most public spaces and businesses got a choice as to whether to require them of all customers. Still, reaction to the newfound flexibility remains varied and somewhat confusing for both businesses and their customers. 

Sitting at Boese Brothers Brewing in Downtown Albuquerque for after-work beers and snacks, vaccinated customers talked about how they’re navigating public spaces since the state’s mask mandate was relaxed. 

Josh Hammond: “If I go into somewhere and the employees aren't wearing a mask, I feel like they feel comfortable with me not wearing a mask.”  

Nick Bruce: “I've been relying on signage outside. There are still a few places that do that. If they don't have signage, I'll just walk in without a mask.”

Robert Blanton: “I would say typically the first ten minutes of me being inside anywhere I have the mask on.”

Cassie Fairchild: “I'm still mostly wearing my mask. I think I'll probably do that for a little bit longer. There's not really great reasons that I need to continue wearing it, it's more just like you've gotten used to it.”

Customers aren’t the only ones varying in how they're navigating the state’s revised mask policy after more than a year of a clear, strict mandate that everyone wear a mask in public. Owners and managers of three Albuquerque-area businesses – a restaurant, a brewery, and a coffee shop – say the rule change felt abrupt.

Credit Nash Jones / KUNM
Farm & Table restaurant took their mask mandate signs down but kept their staff masked until all were fully vaccinated.

Cherie Montoya, owner of Farm & Table restaurant in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, said her team was “really surprised.” “We almost felt ‘we aren’t ready for this,’” she said.  

Montoya said she took the restaurant's signs down and allowed vaccinated customers to take their masks off. But since some of her staff were still unvaccinated, the team decided to go above and beyond the mandate and all stay masked. “We do have a pretty hot kitchen in the back, and knowing that they did that for their coworkers was pretty awesome,” Montoya said. “But once we got to that point where we were all 100 percent vaccinated, we were fine as a team to let go of that.” 

Over at Boese Brothers Brewing, where they also had an only partially-vaccinated team when the mandate relaxed, they tried to keep the requirement in place for customers. Without the state mandate to back up their house rules, however, manager Beth Floyd said they were regularly butting heads with customers. “We got a lot of people who were just calling us stupid and like, ‘the laws are now this,’ and they’re legally able to not wear it and can come in here,” Floyd said. “I’m like, ‘well, this is a private business and it’s for the safety of our staff and everyone here and what we prefer.’”

After over a year of confronting customers who were now more empowered to flout the rule, Floyd said they gave in after just a few days, took their signs down and resigned to serving unmasked patrons. “We don’t want to fight people anymore. I’m tired of it,” they said. “It’s been a long time of having to regulate everything from the mask-wearing to social distancing to, you know, just being respectful and polite.”

Michael Thomas Coffee in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill has also dealt with customers upset over the mask rule. “The initial mask mandate caused a lot of stress and conflict,” said owner Michael Sweeney. 

He said he backed his staff who challenged unmasked customers, but many experienced anxiety over the potentially tense interactions and some even quit. Sweeney said his management team trained the baristas on de-escalation tactics. “We looked at a way of handling it because we saw customers that– you know, everybody has bad days, and during the pandemic we all had a lot of bad days,” he said, “and so we talked about that and tried to build a lot of empathy.”

Credit Nash Jones / KUNM
A sign hangs by the register at Michael Thomas Coffee requesting all customers stay masked until the staff is fully vaccinated.

Sweeney said Michael Thomas also tweaked the revised state mandate. The coffee shop is asking all customers regardless of vaccination status to stay masked until their whole team gets their shots. “It’s just a little bit more time where we can be a little bit safer,” he said. “It’s just a request, and our customers have responded in kind, which has been really awesome.”

And when people come in unmasked anyway? “We’re trusting that they’re vaccinated,” said Sweeney. “That’s all we can do and that’s where we’re leaving it at. There’s a point where trust has to be brought back into this formula.”

All three businesses said they are avoiding conflict by using the honor system to enforce the state’s continued mask requirement for customers who still aren’t fully vaccinated.  

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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