'It's a difficult situation': Mask guidance creates issue for businesses

  • Relaxing face mask rules for fully vaccinated people brings relief but business owners are on their own when it comes to keeping customers safe as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

    Relaxing face mask rules for fully vaccinated people brings relief but business owners are on their own when it comes to keeping customers safe as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer, June 2020

 
 
Updated 5/19/2021 6:29 AM

As fully vaccinated Illinoisans cast aside masks, thanks to revised government rules, many employers and business owners are feeling their way through the new responsibility that landed in their laps amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the state was revising its strict mandate to exempt fully vaccinated residents from wearing masks in public, with some exceptions like schools, to align with updated U.S. Centers for Disease Control policies issued May 13.

 

It's recommended that unvaccinated people wear masks, but the dilemma is determining who's vaccinated and who's not when the masked and unmasked are mingling, and how to keep people safe from a still deadly virus.

Attorney Shawn Collins, founder of The Collins Law Firm in Naperville, isn't taking any chances.

After going remote for months, the office is reopening June 14, and "all employees will be required to be fully vaccinated," Collins said Tuesday.

Workers will be able to choose whether they wear a mask at work, but face coverings are required with visitors who are not vaccinated or where there's uncertainty.

"It's a difficult situation," Collins said. "We're going to resolve all uncertainty in favor of the health of our employees. They not only need to be safe, but need to feel safe."

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Chicago's own United Airlines is still forming plans, spokeswoman Leslie Scott said.

"We have not fully reopened the corporate support center at Willis Tower, but departments are working on their plans now. We haven't mandated our employees get the vaccine. It's still something we are considering," said Scott, adding United has made vaccines available at key locations for workers.

Asked about the state of flux, Illinois Department of Public Health official Melaney Arnold said Tuesday "the verification process for who is vaccinated is up to the individual business, but they are not required to verify vaccine status."

Meanwhile, masks are required on Metra trains and at Metra's West Loop headquarters.

"For now, we are still requiring masks for all employees and visitors," spokesman Michael Gillis said. Vaccinations are "not required but highly recommended."

At W.S. Darley & Co. in Itasca, employees are "strongly encouraged" to get vaccinated, and the fire truck manufacturer is "offering them incentives to get vaccinated including a full day off," CEO Paul Darley said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We are currently requiring (workers) to wear masks when not at their work stations," Darley explained, adding offices and cubicles are 6 feet apart, with plexiglass in most cubicles.

"We are looking to change the policy for those who provide proof of vaccination, but we are erring on the side of caution and waiting for guidance."

It's one thing for employers to set policies for staff, but many businesses eager to regain customers shrink from becoming the vaccination police.

Walmart announced last week that vaccinated customers are "welcome to shop without a mask, and we will continue to request that non-vaccinated customers and members wear face coverings in our stores and clubs."

Another large chain, Walgreens, stated it would "continue its face-covering policy for the time being."

"The safety of our team members and customers is our top priority," external relations director Fraser Engerman said.

For local eateries, the state is still strongly encouraging managers to check the vaccination status of unmasked diners, but "that's up to the individual restaurant owner," Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia said.

"They know their guests. They know their team members. They've got to figure out what's best for them."

Meanwhile, the Schaumburg Boomers baseball team "will no longer be requiring people that are vaccinated to wear a mask," Director of Promotions Lexi Fiolka said.

The policies of the state and the CDC require masks for everyone in schools, day care, health care settings, on public transit, in airplanes and in congregate settings like group homes.

Arnold noted that municipalities and businesses are free to impose their own regulations that could include universal masking in public.

The agency is working on revised guidance for schools and day cares, sports, social events and summer camps.

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