LITTLETON — Gretchen Harvey, owner of Aylakai & The Broom Closet, recently paused a phone call to address a customer.
“Excuse me young lady, can I get you to pull your mask over your nose? I know it’s hot and uncomfortable,” she said, adding a moment later, “Thank you.”
Those conversations have become more common in Littleton, where a growing number of Main Street businesses have instituted a new policy during the pandemic: No Mask, No Service.
Several businesses have put in place mask requirements. Their goal is to keep staff, their families, and the community safe from COVID-19. They also aim to prevent an outbreak in northern New Hampshire, where the number of confirmed cases remains low (one current case in Pittsburg).
“It’s the responsible thing to do,” Harvey said, noting that her husband is an occupational therapist who works with the elderly. “It would be devastating if anything happened and they contact traced it back to him, to me, to the people who shop here.”
New Hampshire recommends face coverings to prevent transmission of coronavirus. However masks are not mandatory. That has led some businesses and municipalities to create their own regulations
There has been push back.
Harvey recalled one customer with a Massachusetts accent who pulled down his mask to talk with someone. She repeatedly asked him to pull his mask up.
“After the fourth time, he rudely turned and said he was talking to a friend,” she said. After a brief exchange “he called me a couple of choice words and left.”
Other customers have declared the mask requirement a violation of their civil liberties. Harvey recalled a woman who walked in without a mask — and refused to wear one.
“She said she was allowed to shop here whether she wore a mask or not, and it was illegal for us to require that,” Harvey said. “We said ‘If you want to talk legalities, we can get the police down here.’”
Something similar happened last week at the Little Village Toy and Book Shop, where owner Clare Brooks offered a free mask to a customer as she walked in.
“She said ‘It’s my Constitutional right not to wear a mask’,” Brooks said. They went back and forth and eventually Brooks threatened to call the police. She reminded the customer “rights go both ways, my staff has the right to safety while they’re here at the store.”
However, those incident have been the exception.
Main Street businesses with mask rules (Aylakai, Little Village Toy, Chutters) have reported overwhelming compliance without incident.
“Most people have been really good,” Harvey said. “I’ve got a small store and social distancing with lots of nooks and crannies is tough. We’re just trying to do everything right.”
Brooks and her staff have trained to approach customers in a non-confrontational manner. She encouraged her employees to smile, even if it can’t be seen, because it will come through in their eyes and their tone.
“If you use humor, encouragement, and offer a free mask if they don’t have one, that helps people remain positive — even those that might have gotten upset otherwise,” Brooks said.
For some business owners, the mask requirement is tied into the health of staff and families.
When Brooks re-opened her store on June 1, she required customers to wear masks and use hand sanitizer upon arrival.
She said one employee has a pre-existing auto-immune disorder, which makes her high-risk for COVID-19 complications, and another employee lives with a high-risk family member.
“If you see a sign requiring masks when you’re going into a business, the chances are someone is of higher risk, either within that building or in the home of someone that is in that building,” Brooks said. “We realize masks are uncomfortable. We don’t want to make you uncomfortable. But if we [require masks], we probably have a good reason.”
Harvey noted that many customers are arriving from harder-hit areas.
“I’d say 80 percent of the people I’m talking to, when they come to my register, are from somewhere other than New Hampshire,” she said. “We’ve had people from Texas, Idaho, Wisconsin, Minnesota. I had two sisters here today, one from New Jersey and the other from Alabama.”
For that reason, she takes extra measures to keep her husband and his elderly clients safe.
“I’m very careful now,” she said. “I go home, throw my clothes in the laundry, and immediately take a shower.”
Meanwhile the Crumb Bar will implement a mask requirement at its walk-up window starting Thursday.
It comes after growing numbers of customers would gather by the order window without masks on.
“We have a strong clientele of locals that wear masks all the time, but a lot of tourists who come up are definitely not wearing masks. People will have masks in their hands,” said owner Kaylee Klein.
The policy is meant to protect Crumb Bar employees (“They expressed concerns”) and customers.
And, of course, Klein’s family.
Explaining her personal reasons for imposing a mask requirement, she said, “My husband has asthma and my son has respiratory issues. That’s enough for me.”