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Businesses faced with mask requirement

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Masked up, Julie Aichele, left, rings up a customer at Book & Game Co., in downtown Walla Walla on Saturday morning. “Great to see downtown so busy,” she said. Starting Monday, all workers in Washington with personal interactions at work must wear at least a cloth face mask, and it must be provided by employers if workers don’t already have them.

Beginning Monday, a new rule for businesses operating within Washington state’s ”Safe Start” plan will become official.

Announced by Gov. Jay Inslee on May 29, it was also included at the tail-end of a blog post where he continued to lay out his plan for battling the spread of COVID-19.

Once the rule becomes reality, it will be hard not to heed the number of faces being obscured by masks.

“Beginning June 8, all employees will be required to wear a cloth facial covering,” the blog reads, “except when working alone in an office, vehicle, or at a job site, or when the job has no in-person interaction.”

Employers now must also provide cloth facial coverings for those who don’t have them, based on Washington Department of Labor and Industries’ safety and health rules and guidance.

Many businesses, such as restaurants, taverns and grocery stores, were already required to have masks on workers, but now the directive spreads to any worker that has personal interactions, be it at an office or retail store.

Out of 10 businesses that were called in Walla Walla and College Place, on-duty managers said they were either partially aware of the rules, or not aware at all.

But for businesses surveyed — from pet grooming to banking — all were already wearing masks anyway.

If any non-medical business is used to the masks by now, it’s employees of grocery stores. Just ask Steve Wenzel, store director of Safeway on East Rose Street.

“I don’t even notice it anymore,” Wenzel said of wearing his mask. “... We’re all wearing masks and we’ve been doing it basically since the beginning” of the pandemic.

Labor and Industries also released a PDF guide that shows workers “which mask for which task” to use since not all masks are created equal in preventing the spread of germs.

Wenzel said his team at Safeway started off wearing N-95 masks, which are more efficient than others at blocking germs and bacteria, according to the Washington state Department of Health. But Wenzel said they were hard to breathe through, especially on long days. Not only that, N-95 masks are in short supply, and he wanted to see them reserved for health care workers.

Safeway then provided one-time use paper masks for employees and then eventually switched to cloth masks, which can be washed and reused.

The cloth masks are being required for all workers who experience person-to-person interaction. In fact, the health department acknowledges there is “limited evidence that use of cloth face coverings helps reduce disease transmission.” However, they can reduce the release of particles into the air when those wearing them speaks, coughs or sneezes. That includes those with COVID-19 who feel well, the information says.

When coupled with social distancing and routine hand-washing, masks can help prevent the spread of many diseases.

Wenzel agreed that they are more for protecting others than oneself.

“I want to be clear — these masks don’t protect you,” Wenzel said. “They protect the others from you. The only way this works is if everybody wears them.”

When Walla Walla County launched into Phase 2 of Inslee’s Safe Start plan, arguably one of the biggest returns to business was in the hair care industry.

Hair stylists and barbers have their own challenges with masks, especially on customers.

Josue Salazar, owner of House of Dapper barber shop, said the masks are hot and stuffy and make it difficult to interact with clients.

“And trimming around the ears is tricky,” Salazar said. They have to carefully raise part of the mask and then place it back. Beard trimming is also not an option right now for that reason.

At Capital Barber Shop, owner K.C. Pratt said the masks were certainly going to take some getting used to.

“Your nose dries out and gets sore,” Pratt said.

Employers must also now post signs encouraging customers to wear face masks, and they’re also strongly encouraged by the state to make masks mandatory for all customers.

Wenzel and managers at other businesses surveyed said they were not aware of that particular rule yet. Although Wenzel said the leadership at Safeway has been good about relaying rules to managers and parsing out the details.

“Wearing a mask is strongly encouraged in most circumstances to protect the health of our communities,” Inslee said in his blog.

“As we start to increases in travel, recreation, and economic activity, it is critical that we remain diligent in order to avoid a sharp increase in exposure. We will continue to closely monitor disease data to determine whether additional steps are needed to protect public health.”

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Jedidiah Maynes can be reached at jedidiahmaynes@wwub.com or 509-526-8318.

Jedidiah Maynes is the managing editor of Walla Walla Lifestyles magazine. He also writes about business news in the Valley and covers a variety of others topics on occasion. He enjoys making music and puns.