Local businesses deal with maskless customers

Face mask

NORTHWEST CORNER — As the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched on into the summer in Connecticut, healthy practices for staying safe to have evolved as more is discovered about the virus.
One large change has been the requirement of masks in public businesses, including grocery stores and restaurants, to prevent the airborne transmission of Coronavirus.
But not all customers have reacted positively to the safety requirement, with some taking their frustration over the restriction out on the business owners enforcing the rule.
Ryan Craig, the owner of the Berkshire County Store in downtown Norfolk, has navigated a variety of interactions with customers who come into his business without a mask (Full disclosure: Ryan Craig serves as Treasurer for the Winsted Phoenix’s Board of Directors).
Having kept his store open throughout the pandemic, he has not been afraid to tell customers to come back with a face covering to complete their purchase.
“It’s been a battle,” Craig said in an interview with The Winsted Phoenix. “I have certain customers that I’m telling every morning you have to put on a mask. I’ve had to refuse service to a couple of customers because they weren’t wearing a mask. It’s a struggle and it is amazing how people think they’re just…I don’t know if they think they’re immune or they don’t care.”
While losing customers who refuse to wear a mask isn’t something he wants to happen to his business, Craig says that when that negative is weighed against the impact of someone testing positive at his store or the store needs to close, the choice is clear.
“I always worried, ‘Well, what if I lost the business of some guy spending his $3 a day on a muffin that he comes in to get?’” Craig said. “That would be three times 30 days, $90 a month that my business would not see. But when you weigh that against COVID, and what that could do to your business, now all of a sudden your thought process is different. This guy brings COVID in the door, I’m down $2500 a day while we’re closed.”
Earlier this month, Lou Gabriel, owner of Zach and Lou’s Barbecue in Torrington, spoke to The Phoenix about issues he’s faced with anti-mask customers at his restaurant. After many visitors refused to wear proper face-covering leading to confrontations at the location, the restaurant changed the front door of its building to a take-out window and is no longer allowing customers inside.
Other restaurant owners, such as Tony Hang and Lynn Lieu, co-owners of the Mama Pho Vietnamese Restaurant on Main Street in Winsted, have had different experiences with visitors to their establishment.
Hang and Lieu say they have not had any negative interactions with customers refusing to wear masks, and that any visitors who come to the door without a mask on seeing the many signs the couple has hung on the doors and windows and go back to their car to put on a mask before entering.
“I think Winsted is a calm place with not too many people, so that’s been good for us too,” Lieu said. “They tend to be more friendly.”
Just a few blocks away at the Health Food Corner on Main Street, co-owners Shane and Shannon Centrella have had similarly friendly experiences with Winsted residents who frequent their store. The couple took over running the store from Shannon’s parents, Rob and Sue Bailey, at the end of March.
The vast majority of customers have been respectful both of mask requirements and guidelines on social distancing while shopping in the store, according to Shane Centrella.
“There’s been a few interactions that weren’t the best but that’s the minority,” Shane Centrella said. “For the most part, we’ve had nothing but positive interaction.”
Shane and Shannon both attributed the majority positive interactions to the size and nature of the store, where the number of customers rarely exceeds five or six at a time.
Aside from maskless customers, all three businesses cited other major challenges from the pandemic as impacting the way they run their stores. Craig and the Centrellas all said balancing demand and supply for certain items, without consistency about what customers will need week-to-week, has been the most unpredictable part of running their stores during COVID-19.
“Being able to keep things on the shelf that people are looking for has been probably the most difficult, but as far as the actual pandemic and the virus itself, we, thank goodness, haven’t had any real issue,” Shane Centrella said.
Craig said that attempting to anticipate what customers will come into the store looking for can lead to excess supply or empty shelves for certain items due to unpredictable changes as a result of the virus.
“We’ve had to kind of be in the right place at the right time with the right inventory to meet what the customer’s needs are, as this thing kind of evolves,” Craig said. “It’s like starting a brand new business in a market that I know nothing about. Forecasting sales is hard enough on a given day, but now it’s like you know one week to the next, the buying trends are changing.”
The financial impacts on small businesses in the area have also been trying for owners, and particularly for restaurants. Hang and Lieu made the tough decision at the end of March to completely shut down Mama Pho and its sister restaurant, Papa Boba, for a few months for the safety of customers and employees. Both restaurants reopened earlier this month for takeout and sit-in dining under Connecticut’s staged reopening allowances.
Even with the extended closure, Mama Pho is still struggling to exceed even 60 percent of its original revenue before the pandemic, according to Hang. The restaurant is unable to support outdoor dining like some of its competitors due to the expense of outdoor furniture, and Lieu and Hang fear the possibility that they may need to shut down again if revenues don’t rise.
“I just want to tell people, if they can, try to support every local small business. We are going through a very very hard time,” Lieu said. “The little money you spend can help a lot, not just for the restaurant, but for the workers who can stay in their jobs.”

Cady Stanton is a freelance journalist based in Colebrook, Conn. A graduate of Georgetown University, she has previously published articles in The Hill, The Hoya and Washington Monthly.
Exit mobile version