West Virginia business owners are taking it upon themselves to find creative ways under pandemic pressure to keep themselves, their employees and customers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic and comply with a new mask mandate.
A new layer of responsibility fell upon business owners Tuesday, when an executive order requiring West Virginians to wear face coverings indoors when social distancing isn’t possible.
While the masks are mandated through the order, Gov. Jim Justice said there wouldn’t be any criminal penalties for people who didn’t wear masks, putting the burden of enforcing his order on people working throughout the state.
Justice said he had “all the confidence in the world” that local businesses would “encourage enforcement” of the policy.
Some business owners are having to get creative to comply with the governor’s order.
In April, Small Town Market opened its doors in Clay, where there hadn’t been a full-service grocery store since January 2019.
Sarah Williams is the owner of the store, which she operates with her husband, B.J. Williams.
When the Williamses were setting up their business in December 2019, there was no pandemic.
When the World Health Organization declared the pandemic in March, about a month ahead of their opening day, the Williamses adjusted their business model to protect customers by becoming an order-only operation instead of having customers shop inside the store.
“It was overwhelming,” Sarah Williams said. “Where we’re a small community, I think it made it a little bit easier for everybody. Everyone’s been very understanding, and I think it helps us get acquainted with the community, having it be so personal and one-on-one.”
Sarah and B.J. Williams also are delivering groceries to customers throughout the county who either can’t leave their homes or are too afraid to leave their homes.
Those efforts are helping them stay in compliance with the governor’s order, Sarah Williams said.
“I’m just trying to help feed the community — not competing, not trying to make millions of dollars here,” Sarah Williams said. “We’re here just trying to help out the community we grew up in.”
However, not wearing a mask for some people isn’t a choice in more rural parts of the state where big box stores don’t exist, she said.
“It’s hard to get masks for us anyway,” she said. “Luckily a few women have been making them in town, so we’ve been able to keep some. That was my worry was if everybody has to wear them then they’re going to be sold out again, so I didn’t want people to not be able to go shopping just because they couldn’t find one.
“Our number one goal is to keep everybody safe around here.”
Between 10 a.m. Wednesday and 10 a.m. Thursday, 136 new COVID-19 cases were diagnosed, based on data provided by the Department of Health and Human Resources.
Before the governor’s order was issued Monday, businesses including Red Caboose in Huntington, already had taken their own precautions based on available health guidelines.
The Red Caboose is an artisanal center and gift shop selling products from Appalachia-based artists and businesses. It’s operated by the Huntington Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The store was closed between mid-March and mid-June, said Raine Klover, manager of The Red Caboose.
She and The Red Caboose employees worked during that time to put the store’s entire inventory for sale online for the first time and began hosting live sales to survive the months while the physical store was a closed, calling the whole pandemic a roller coaster ride.
Since the store reopened, sales have been good for the store, Klover said, since more items are available for sale online.
“It was a little scary to reopen because, of course, we’re still in the middle of this thing,” Klover said. “There was a little trepidation regarding that, but we put in some good protocol.”
Employees at The Red Caboose have been wearing masks since the physical store located in the Huntington Convention and Visitor’s Bureau headquarters in downtown Huntington reopened, and there’s a new sneeze guard in front of the register, Klover said.
Masks are available for free for customers, but even that hasn’t been enough to make everyone comply with the store-turned-statewide policy.
Klover said some customers have opted to politely leave the store instead of shopping and supporting local artisans.
“We are certainly concerned that there are people who may have more aggressive or violent reactions to being asked to wear a mask,” Klover said. “We also deal with the public every day, especially here at the Visitors Center, we have all kinds. It’s just part of our job is dealing with the public, and hopefully we’ve got the skills to diffuse any kind of situation. I’m still feeling better about masks being used than any potential for violence or aggression.”