End of mask mandate brings optimism and challenges to small businesses

The Illinois mask mandate has ended. No suburban businesses are required to check their customers vaccination status any longer. Many small business owners are elated and hopeful for a return to something close to normalcy.

Customers are also excited to see the conclusion of the state mask mandate. With the Omicron wave quickly fading, and spring on the horizon, there is great optimism among the small business community.

Small businesses have been navigating mask mandates and other mitigations put into place to curb the spread of the virus for nearly two years. Restaurants, gyms, retail establishments, professional service firms and other small businesses have consistently seen the pandemic's landscape change and adjusted accordingly.

Small business owners will now pivot away from mandates and enact their own rules. This will present an array of new challenges.

Small businesses must determine whether they will require masks in any capacity. They will need to determine how the vaccination status of customers and clients should be considered. The policies implemented by small businesses will undoubtedly satisfy some customers and alienate others. Whatever rules are adopted, they may upset employees, adding additional pressure on businesses struggling to hire and retain talent.

The simple fact is that Illinoisans have wide-ranging and differing opinions on the use of masks and the impact of vaccinations. These views are often driven by the health status and risk-tolerance of individuals and their families.

Sometimes folks' opinions are driven by politics or other strongly held convictions. The location of a business may also impact its policies on masks. For businesses that operate in various communities, a uniform policy may become challenging.

Communication and empathy will be crucial as businesses implement policies on masks and vaccination requirements. The practicality and problem-solving skills that define small business owners can help them successfully through this transition.

The small business community can transcend the toxicity which has marked so much of the dialogue over mitigations. Small business owners that engage with their customers and employees have an opportunity to retain both throughout this transitionary time.

The public also has an important role to play in helping small businesses transition away from mandates. Please be patient with small business owners and their staffs as they determine the best way to proceed.

There will be differing views on how and whether mitigations should still be implemented by businesses. The reactions of customers, who may disagree with the position a business takes on mitigations, can have a profound impact.

Political rhetoric on masks has not been productive. Let's see whether we can do it better. There seems to be light at the end of this long COVID-19 tunnel. The small business community can lead, and demonstrate that by engaging in a meaningful way, a smooth transition away from mandates can be made.

• Elliot Richardson is co-founder and president of the Small Business Advocacy Council.

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