LA County business owners become reluctant enforcers as coronavirus rules tighten up

Atika Enciso strives for excellent customer service, but when a client walks into Studio Blo, her North Hollywood beauty salon, before greeting them, she stops them and asks to put on their masks.

“You just have to make a joke of it because you can see people roll their eyes or they say something and you’re just like, ‘Sorry, we just want to keep everyone safe,’” she said.

As Los Angeles County rolled out its new mask rule, which went into effect over the weekend followed by a spike in COVID-19 cases brought by the highly contagious Delta variant, businesses are forced to figure out whether and how to enforce rules on masks.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, business owners and their employees often became major enforcers of government restrictions, putting their own safety and well-being at risk.

Some workers faced violent reactions and even endured injuries while trying to enforce the rules. In Van Nuys, a Target worker was punched and left with a broken arm last year after confronting two customers who refused to cover their faces. A Ralphs employee in Mid-Wilshire was rammed with a shopping cart after asking a customer to wear a mask or leave the store. Scores of store workers have faced irate, sometimes screaming mask foes, some of the interchanges posted to social media.

Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association, said the employees were often caught in the middle of the mask war.

“We are not law enforcement, and you can’t ask the employees to be the enforcers of this mandate,” she said. “The county needs to figure out how they are going to enforce it.”

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said last week deputies wouldn’t enforce the new indoor mask mandate because it contradicts the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

In addition, the mask mandate makes businesses worry that Los Angeles County is going to return capacity limits and potentially impose another lockdown, said Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association.

“What are they trying to accomplish by having the mask mandate back?” she said. “Is it going to encourage particular communities to go and get vaccinated? We support it, but is it the right way to do it?”

Michelin added that it could make sense(would be sensible) for public officials to mandate everyone to get vaccinated instead of forcing businesses to be enforcers of government restrictions.

“It’s kind of like, ‘Let’s squeeze businesses and put them in that position which they don’t want to be in,’” she said.

With the labor shortage and high taxes, she added, the new mandate might be the last straw for some small businesses that are still trying to recover from the pandemic lockdowns.

“At what point do you hit your limit?” she said.

Dr. Winnie Moses, the founder and medical director of Parfaire Medical Aesthetics in Pasadena, said she had not seen any effect of the rule on her medica spa. Pasadena said Monday it will reinstate the indoor mask rule for residents regardless of their vaccination status.

“I think it’s a setback but we haven’t seen any effect on our business,” she said. “We haven’t seen any cancellations.”

Dr. Moses added that most of her patients already wear masks when they visit her clinic.

Atika Enciso discusses how business owners deal with shoppers who refuse to wear masks, what directions they give to their employees and whether their employees express concerns about enforcing public health guidelines and dealing with difficult customers. Enciso runs her business, Studio Blo inside Pout Beauty Bar in North Hollywood. (Photo by Andy Holzman, Contributing Photographer)

For Enciso the mask mandate is not just a new rule, but a potential sign that more restrictions might be on the way. She worried about the future of her business, which only recently showed a sign of recovery as her customers started attending social events and used her services.

Since the day county officials announced the new mandate, about 10 of her clients canceled their appointments.

“I’m scared that there’s going to be another shutdown,” she said. “If that happens, that’s going to hurt us.”

Los Angeles Supervisor Kathryn Barger said it was important to educate the public about the new variant and “let businesses take upon themselves to mandate masks.”

Barger added that she didn’t hear any information about additional restrictions coming up. She said health officials were closely monitoring the COVID count and “if the numbers keep going up and it crosses over from unvaccinated to those who are vaccinated, then we really need to rethink how we are addressing COVID in LA County.”

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