Will you have to wear a mask in Danbury area businesses? Owners differ on guidance

Photo of Currie Engel

With new federal guidelines promising a whole new world for fully vaccinated individuals, local business owners and leaders are grappling with how best to handle updated mask-wearing guidance and determine the best way forward.

The new guidance, which says that fully vaccinated people can unmask both indoors and outside in small and large groups of people, was announced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Thursday. But many are still waiting for clearer guidance from Gov. Ned Lamont.

Sarah Bouissou, who owns Bernard’s, a popular Ridgefield restaurant, with her husband Bernard, is not changing anything until she hears more guidelines from the state. Staff will be masked and diners will be asked to wear masks coming and going from their tables indoors, she said.

“In the service industry, it’s challenging because you don’t want their first experience when they walk in the door to be, ‘Can I check your papers please?’” said Bouissou.

She said their customers are divided on their comfortability with masks, and making sure all her clients are happy and comfortable is of utmost importance, so she’s not changing any rules yet. They’re staying at about 50 percent capacity indoors for the time being.

“If they’re not comfortable, they’re not coming,” Bouissou said of her customers. “I have diners say this is the only place that they’ll dine inside so I don’t want to risk that.”

Checking paperwork

To check papers or not to check papers. That’s the current question some restaurant and business owners are dealing with.

RVNAhealth’s Director of Community Health, Laura Cordeira, said she thinks the new guidance is likely going to create a lot of confusion and could be tricky to oversee and enforce.

“It’s going to be hard to implement on all fronts because you’re going to need some sort of proof, there’s going to be some sort of honor system, and there’s got to be somebody who is able to enforce it,” Cordeira said.

Some businesses are just going to take patrons’ word for it.

At The Edge Fitness Clubs Danbury, fitness consultant Ashly Rodriguez said they’re not authorized to ask clients for personal health information like a vaccine card, so if someone tells them they’re fully vaccinated, they’ll let that person work out without a mask on.

At The Toy Room, a children’s store in Bethel, owner Kim Ramsey hasn’t fully made a decision and wants to read her customers reactions first.

“I’m not the vaccine police, I’m not going to question people who come in without a mask on,” she said.

For now, if a customer comes in, she’ll be wearing a mask unless it’s family or a close friend. Ramsey is often the only employee working inside. But it’s up to the vaccinated customers whether they want to wear a mask or not.

“My attitude right now is just hopefully people have respect for each other and can respect each other’s decisions as to whether they have a mask on,” said Ramsey.

All businesses echoed the same sentiment when it came to their decision: the safety and comfort of our customers comes first.

Several local businesses are wary of scaring off customers who might not be fully ready to be around unmasked people in an indoor space.

“I’m just starting to see so many of my customers come out from quarantine that I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable,” said Diane Berkowitz, who owns the restaurant Sonny Side Up with her husband, Sonny. “I just don’t feel ready to rip the masks off inside yet.”

Many of the breakfast spot’s patrons are older, according to Berkowitz, and she wants to ensure that they feel comfortable coming in.

For now, things will stay the same. Staff will continue to wear masks, and they will ask customers to wear masks coming in and out of the restaurant, and to the bathrooms. Berkowitz’s decision also impacts her employees, so she said she works hard to listen to their concerns, too.

“If they’re nervous, if they’re worried, I listen to them because they’re so important to me,” she said.

At Accenté Salon, which has locations in Danbury and Ridgefield, owner Mary Rullo said she’s also waiting for more information on May 19.

“I feel like people still will be uncomfortable because we work so closely with them, like we’re on top of them,” Rullo said. “It’ll be up to them.”

She’s also leaving it up to fully vaccinated employees to decide whether they feel comfortable wearing a mask or not.

“I think it’s going to be a waiting game to see what’s going to happen,” Rullo said.

Some changes may be here to stay

The pandemic has altered the way many of these businesses operate, but some of the changes may stick for a while because owners find them beneficial.

Some customers are still very wary of the virus. Rullo has clients whom she hasn’t seen in a year and a half that are only just starting to come back in. Another wore gloves throughout her appointment.

On Friday, one of Rullo’s employees took her client outside to finish the appointment after a smoke alarm briefly went off. A woman on the street came up to employee Tiffany Broderick and asked if she could also get her hair done outside, since she was not yet comfortable coming inside. Broderick told her she could.

In all, Rullo said Broderick gained three new clients because they saw her doing hair outside.

At The Toy Room, Ramsey is taking down her plastic shield at the register on May 19, but is keeping the private shopping hours option and curbside service she started during the pandemic.

Bernard’s is operating at 50 percent capacity indoors, which Bouissou said is likely to remain “for the forseeable future.” Berkowitz echoed this sentiment.

“[My husband and I are] in our 50s, so we don’t know that we want to go back to 100 percent— that’s a lot of work,” she said.

Tiffany Broderick, a manager at Accenté Salon, works on client Lynette Gilliand's hair outside of the Ridgefield location Friday. While working outside, Broderick found at least three new clients, including one who said she only felt comfortable getting her hair done outside.

Tiffany Broderick, a manager at Accenté Salon, works on client Lynette Gilliand's hair outside of the Ridgefield location Friday. While working outside, Broderick found at least three new clients, including one who said she only felt comfortable getting her hair done outside.

Photo courtesy of Tiffany Broderick

Unvaccinated and on the fence

As restaurants, gyms and salons grapple with what to do with fully vaccinated customers, health providers are still just trying to get people to come in for a vaccine if they are able.

With the new guidance offering a path to normalcy, vaccine clinics and providers are waiting to see whether it will encourage vaccine hesitant people to go ahead and get the shot. For now, all of them said it’s far too soon to tell what the imapct will be.

“I do think the majority who wanted a vaccine have gotten it by now,” said RVNAhealth’s Laura Cordeira.

She doesn’t forsee this new mandate making “as much of a large scale dent as they might be hoping for.”

Leslie Gianelli, vice president of communications for the Community Health Center, Inc. in Danbury, said that while they hope the guidance motivates more people to get vaccinated, she also thinks it’s too early to know its impact. This sentiment was mirrored by Katie Curran, chief operating officer and general counsel for the Connecticut Institute for Communities (CIFC).

“The guidance is very new and will take people a little time to process,” Gianelli wrote in an email.