Service workers worry about confrontations, lack of vaccinations as the end of Utah’s statewide mask mandate approaches

For businesses that maintain mask mandates, enforcement will fall to young service workers, many of whom are already fatigued by upholding the requirements and who are not yet fully vaccinated.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rondalei Jones and her husband Reed Page, co-owners of Vivid Studio, an American Fork salon that rents space out to stylists, talk about the transition away from masks on Saturday, April 3, 2021. When the mask mandate ends, they will require stylists who haven't received at least one vaccination to continue wearing masks -- but it will be up to each stylist to enforce mask mandates with his or her clients. Reed Page said it feels "too early" to have lifted the mask mandate, and wishes the state had kept it in place long enough to give more time for people to get vaccinated.

With the end of Utah’s statewide mask mandate approaching on Saturday, some service workers along the Wasatch Front fear the beginning of a new phase of the pandemic — one marked by increased confrontation as they enforce face covering requirements now established by their employers.

At the same time, nearly a dozen service workers expressed frustration in interviews with The Salt Lake Tribune about the mandate’s arbitrary end date, which comes as many of them remain unvaccinated or partially inoculated.

And they said they feel left behind by a government that sees their work as vital to the economy but the people doing it as not important enough to get vaccinated before the public at large.

Phoebe Heins, a 26-year-old hairstylist who won’t be fully vaccinated by the time the mandate expires, put it most simply: “I’m pissed.”

Even with the mask mandate, many service workers along the Wasatch Front say they’ve had to do a fair bit of enforcement, reminding customers that they need to put on a face covering or pull one up over their nose.

The potential that these interactions will turn into clashes is already a stress for Carlene Coombs, a 21-year-old student who works for a major retailer at City Creek Center.

“There’s honestly some days where I just look at a customer and I’m like, ‘You know what, they’re in the corner, they’re not around other people, I just don’t have the energy to talk to them right now,’” she said. “Other days I’m like, ‘I’m going to do it, it’s part of my job,’ but there are definitely days I don’t want the confrontation. I don’t know how they’re going to react.”

Erin Moore, who works part time at a Salt Lake City bar, said similarly that she’s currently reminding customers “over and over and over again” about the mandate.

But while face covering rules are currently consistent across businesses and could be blamed on the government if a customer got upset, she and other service workers now worry these conversations will get even harder once the mask mandate ends and it’s on the individual business to justify and explain its own rules.

“We’re being left out in the dust, I guess, to pick up where the government just doesn’t want to step up anymore,” Moore said. “And they barely have. We’ve been the ones mostly enforcing this.”

Elise Jackman, a 23-year-old who works as a clerk at a northern Utah County gas station, said the corporation has advised employees not to enforce the mask mandate for their own safety, “especially because I’m in such a conservative area that people get really angry.”

Jackman said she’s also been in conflict with customers who want the mask mandate better enforced, so “for a while we were getting yelled at on both sides.”

In some ways, she doesn’t expect the end of the mask mandate to change much. But she does worry that “even less people will wear them” and that more people “will start to say things to employees about us wearing them.”

Meanwhile, service workers at businesses that will continue to enforce mask mandates worry that those who don’t want to wear face coverings will feel newly emboldened to fight them once the government requirement ends.

“I’m fairly confident it’s going to be smooth,” said Ashton Scarlet, a 30-year-old stylist who works at a Sugar House salon. “But I guess there is just that kind of constant worry that somebody’s going to take this as license to not wear masks, that the government’s not asking me to wear it anymore so you can’t either. It’s like, no, no we can. We’re a private business; we have that right.”

‘Really disconcerting interactions’

Matt Caputo, the CEO of Caputo’s Market & Deli, made news last month as he called on Gov. Spencer Cox to veto the bill ending the mask mandate, noting that the requirements had de-escalated tensions with some customers in his business.

“Before the statewide mask mandate was put in place by Gov. [Gary] Herbert, our crew was dealing with vitriol and negativity — like, really mad people — several times a day,” he said in a video posted online. “It became the hardest part of the pandemic. And it was really draining and it burned a lot of people out.”

Now, with the governor’s signature, these business owners have to decide whether to enforce their own mask mandates beyond April 10 — a decision that’s colored for some not only by public health but also by politics.

Reed Page, who with his wife, Rondalei Jones, owns a booth-rent hair salon in American Fork, said it’s “too early” to have lifted the mask mandate and wishes the state had kept it in place long enough to give more people time to get vaccinated.

When the mask mandate ends, the couple will have no power to enforce one for clients, but they will require the stylists, who are independent contractors, to continue wearing masks until the end of May unless they’ve received at least one vaccination.

That wasn’t an easy decision, Page said, noting that the dynamic has been “incredibly complex between stylists who don’t believe that masks are effective, their clients who think masks aren’t effective or think the entire pandemic is a hoax or who think that vaccines are a government conspiracy.”

“We also have stylists who are very, very careful and themselves have health complications,” Page added. “If we have stylists who are not masking and some who are, it can damage the business of the other stylists if they have clients who are a lot more skittish.”

Nick Gradinger, co-founder of Vessel Kitchen, said the company plans to enact a mask mandate within its restaurants after April 10.

And while he doesn’t necessarily disagree with the decision to end the mask mandate, he said it would be “naive” to think it won’t have an impact on service workers — many of whom in his company are young adults or teenagers working their first jobs.

A 16-year-old cashier at one of Vessel’s restaurants was yelled at recently and called a “communist” by a customer whom she asked to wear a mask, he said. These interactions aren’t commonplace, he said, but they are frequent enough to raise concern.

“I don’t think it’s going to be long term, but these are really disconcerting interactions,” Gradinger said. “They’re scary. And again, the biggest problem I have with it is obviously the tone in general, but it’s being done to people that have been doing everything in their power to provide people a reprieve — mask or no mask — from the monotony or the problems that they’re encountering because of the pandemic.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The newest Vessel Kitchen location in Salt Lake City's popular 9th and 9th neighborhood on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

‘The most vulnerable population’

Adding to the frustration many service workers feel is the way the mask mandate has collided with the vaccine rollout, a process some say hasn’t recognized the risks that fall on those who can’t work from home.

“I’m really, really upset about it,” said Heins, the Salt Lake City hairstylist. “When originally they said, ‘OK, vaccines are going to be available for everybody starting on April 1,’ I’m like, ‘That does absolutely nothing for me. Even if by some magical way I’m able to get an appointment, it’s not going to be doing anything’” by the time the mask mandate ends.

With the state moving up its timeline for vaccines to the general public, Heins was able to get her first dose March 29. But she still won’t be fully protected when the mask mandate ends, and neither will many of her colleagues.

And while she plans to enforce a mask mandate among her own clients, she said it’s unclear whether the stylists who rent space alongside her will do the same, potentially putting her and those who sit in her chair and haven’t been vaccinated at risk if they don’t.

Taylor, a manager at a locally owned Salt Lake City restaurant, said she thought service workers at restaurants and bars should have received different consideration from the public at large for vaccinations.

The 22-year-old college student — who asked that her last name not be included, since she was not authorized to speak on behalf of the business where she works — said she tried to get her vaccination as soon as availability opened, but she wasn’t able to get an appointment for her first dose until April 14.

“People are coming and taking their masks off at our work where that’s not happening at any other establishment,” she said. “I was kind of upset that service industry workers weren’t higher on the list for vaccination because we are probably the most vulnerable population because people are taking their masks off.”

In lieu of prioritized vaccinations for those who can’t work from home, many service workers said they believe the mask mandate should have been extended beyond the April 10 deadline, which was the product of negotiations between the governor and the Legislature and was not based on public health data.

That way, they said, more service workers would have had time to get fully vaccinated before the restrictions lifted.

The governor has recognized that not all Utahns would be vaccinated by the time the mask mandate ends but noted that the rollout focused on protecting those who are most vulnerable to death and hospitalization as a result of the coronavirus — such as those from older age demographics and with underlying conditions.

And he’s urged businesses to enact their own mask mandates to protect workers who haven’t had a chance to be vaccinated yet.

“Businesses can and should still require masks in their places of business to protect their workers and their customers. There is nothing at all that prevents businesses from doing that,” he said recently. “And we know that businesses have done that in states without a mandate. They did it here before we had a mandate. And they can certainly continue to do that until we get people vaccinated.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox provides updates on the ongoing pandemic as he speaks at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 11, 2021.

‘Don’t be a jerk’

As the end of the statewide mask mandate approaches, Cox recently urged Utahns to “act with respect to your fellow humans” and told those who don’t want to wear masks not to “be a jerk” if a business maintains its restrictions.

“Don’t yell at the clerk; don’t yell at the store manager,” he said. “Don’t make a fool of yourself because you don’t want to wear masks.”

He said people who don’t agree with a business’s rules should go elsewhere. He also urged those who may feel a business isn’t doing enough to combat the spread of the coronavirus to exercise patience as well.

Service workers and business owners shared a similar message with The Tribune, urging customers to keep a cool head and not take the decision of a business owner to require masks out on an employee.

“Don’t yell at 16-year-old girls,” Gradinger said. “Just be a nice person. When you go into the hospitality industry, try to have a level of empathy and if a place’s cultural values don’t align with yours, don’t go to that restaurant.”

The bill the governor signed lifting the mask mandate will still allow health officials to require face coverings in grade schools and for gatherings of 50 or more people who can’t physically distance. And masks will continue to be required at state facilities until at least May 31.

The legislation also leaves open the possibility that local health departments could issue mask mandates with approval from their county commissions or councils.

Several service workers hope to see local mask mandates come to fruition once the statewide mandate ends. They contend the government needs to do more to keep workers safe from both the coronavirus and from confrontations with customers in such a polarized political climate.

“You’re going to work to do your job, not to have debates or be put in a compromising position where you feel potentially unsafe going to work because of how someone might react,” said Keegan Hughes, a 28-year-old massage therapist. “I don’t think that should be the responsibility of service workers.”