‘Berated daily,’ Larimer County businesses grow weary of enforcing mask mandate

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The signs are up on all public buildings: “Masks required per order of the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment.”

But step into almost any Fort Collins-area business and there will be one, two or perhaps 20 people who are not wearing their masks or are wearing them below their nose and mouth.

After nearly two years of navigating changing public health restrictions and customers’ varied and often visceral reactions to mandated masking, there’s little merchants are doing to enforce the county’s order. It’s not worth risking potential customer backlash or putting staff in the unwanted position of being mask enforcers, some merchants say.

Still, swaths of shoppers and employees expect the mask mandate to be followed, which has put area businesses in what some have called a lose-lose battle over enforcement.

Signs inform customers of the required health safety measures near the entrance of Hearne's Footwear & Clothing, co-owned by Maia Baccardi, in Old Town Fort Collins, Colo. on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. Clothing and accessory stores throughout the city lost millions of dollars in sales in April, the first full month of COVID closures, according to the city's monthly sales-and-use tax report released Wednesday.

Prior to Thanksgiving, the health department had received 1,134 complaints about businesses where an employee or customer was violating the mask mandate and completed 230 contacts in person or via phone with businesses that received multiple complaints, said Kori Wilford, spokesperson for the Larimer County health department. “Most businesses are doing the best they can.” 

The health department doesn’t expect 100% compliance every second of every day, she said. Businesses “are required to put up signage, but we don’t expect them to have 100% compliance all the time.” 

Wilford said many of the complaints received by county health leaders were “one offs. One person not wearing a mask.”

As of Tuesday, the health department has issued two notices of violation to businesses that have been contacted but are still not in compliance after being contacted. Thus far, Cozy Cottage at Front Range Village and Voltage Salon in Fort Collins have been cited with 14 and six complaints, respectively, according to the health department. 

The notice gives businesses specific items to correct, Wilford said. If the business doesn’t comply, the county can levy fines, take action against a business or professional license, or, in rare cases, shut the business down, Wilford said.

“We review each circumstance and base our decisions on the risk posed by noncompliance and the willingness of the business to make an effort to comply with the public health order,” she said. “The purpose of the order is to protect public health and not be a punitive measure against businesses that are making efforts to comply.”

Cozy Cottage and Voltage Salon representatives did not respond to emails seeking comment. 

On Tuesday, Cozy Cottage was open for business. All staff and most customers were wearing masks, but notes on the front door and throughout the store said the store is entrusting the mask mandate to each customer and staff. 

“As a company we have chosen not to police our guests or employees with their personal decisions,” stated a note. “We want everyone to feel comfortable during their shopping experience.” 

The note said the store is continuing its sanitation procedures as normal for the health and safety of its customers and staff. 

A man walks by a sign requiring face masks at Moondance Wine and Spirits on the first day of less strict guidelines under phase 1 of 'safer-at-home' during the coronavirus pandemic in Fort Collins, Colo. on May 1, 2020.

Larimer County businesses’ employees weigh mask enforcement

After weathering the pandemic as a bartender at Mash Lab Brewing’s Windsor restaurant since it opened in March, Ashley Lisee said she and two of her coworkers quit their jobs earlier this month, citing general mismanagement and what they described as a lack of mask enforcement among staff.

When Larimer County announced the return of its mask mandate in October, Lisee said she and other Mash Lab Brewing staff members were told the restaurant wouldn’t be enforcing the mandate among customers.

The brewery and restaurant sits just west of the Larimer-Weld county line, the demarcation between Larimer’s more restrictive public health approach to Weld’s approach that has at times defied statewide public health orders.

In an email sent to staff and provided to the Coloradoan, the restaurant’s owners and management said it didn’t want employees to feel like they needed to police guests. The same email said Mash Lab Brewing wanted its staff to “comply to the degree that they feel comfortable,” when it came to the mask mandate.

Fellow former Mash Lab bartender Amy Nowak said after Larimer County’s mask mandate went back into effect Oct. 20 she witnessed employees taking their masks off when owners were around and recalls a conversation with a new employee who said he was told he didn’t have to wear a mask to work there.

The day the mandate went into effect, Lisee said she saw one of Mash Lab’s maskless owners coming in the restaurant and deriding the masks she and other employees were wearing as “stupid.” 

In a statement to the Coloradoan, Mash Lab Brewing’s owners denied ever telling or pressuring employees to not wear a mask.

Lisee later noted that following COVID-19 health mandates became more personal for her when her stepmother died of the disease last December.

“That showed me pretty clearly how serious COVID is, especially to immunocompromised people,” Lisee said in an email to the Coloradoan. “The lack of caring for anyone but themselves was one of the things that made me quit Mash Lab.”

Lisee and Nowak both said they felt unsupported in their jobs and Nowak said the ownership and management’s lack of mask enforcement among staff was, “the straw that broke the camels back” for her. They both quit Nov. 2.

Three days later, Lisee said she filed a complaint about Mash Lab’s mask compliance to the Larimer County health department. One complaint against Mash Lab was reported in the county’s complaint database as of Nov. 5, county data shows.

A sign asks patients and visitors to wear a mask at UCHealth's Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo. on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020.

‘Berated daily’ over enforcement

Mat Dinsmore, owner of Wilbur’s Total Beverage, said his store is enforcing the mask mandate for its team, vendors and drivers, has posted signs and sneeze guards, and adjusted ingress and egress of the store to get rid of bottlenecks, but it is not enforcing the mask mandate for customers.

“We did enforce it for 15 months and were literally berated daily” by customers, Dinsmore said.

Two of his staff members were “basically assaulted,” some customers melted down, broke product, slammed it on the floor, refused to shop there again and even threatened lawsuits for civil rights violations. It’s not a situation Dinsmore wants to put his staff in again.

“Let’s face it, there is a division in this country; differing viewpoints … we’re not enforcing masks because of our concern for both our team and patrons’ safety,” Dinsmore said. “We’re just trying to adapt and play by the rules and take care of our team and patrons the best we can with the information we have that day.”

It was a small percentage of people who caused problems at Wilbur’s, “but it’s issues that I’ve never dealt with in 22 years,” Dinsmore said. Finding workers is already a problem, he said, “I’m not going to put my team at risk on top of not being able to find people.”

Enforcement of Larimer County’s Mask Order

Here’s what Larimer County says is required and recommended of businesses and residents regarding its indoor mask order:

Businesses are required to:

  • Post signage that clearly explains that masks are required when entering and while inside the facility.
  • Monitor, to the greatest extent possible, those coming into the facility and ask those not wearing masks to do so. It is never the expectation that employees become confrontational with customers.

Businesses are recommended to:

  • Use stands for signs (e.g. sandwich boards) to increase the visibility of signage. 
  • Offer disposable masks at the entrance for those who have forgotten theirs.
  • Increase other mitigation strategies, if possible. This includes opening windows and doors for increased ventilation and having hand sanitizer available.
  • Promote alternate options such as curbside pickup, delivery, and virtual options for customers who cannot or will not wear a mask in the facility.

Consumers are expected to

  • Wear masks in all public indoor spaces if 3 years old and older in Larimer County. Carry a clean mask and be prepared to wear it when entering a business or facility. Masks are not required outdoors.
  • Support local businesses by using online ordering, pickup, and/or delivery services, if available, if unable or unwilling to wear a mask.  
  • Be kind and patient with staff at local businesses when they remind you to put on a mask in their facility. 
  • If you observe a concern with a local business, venue, or facility, share your concerns with the business or facility with kindness; patronize the business in ways that reduce your risk of being exposed to others; consider patronizing local businesses that are taking steps to keep their staff and customers safe.

Submitting a concern

Residents are encouraged to share a concern with the health department if they believe it is clear that a business is actively working to circumvent and be willfully defiant of the local mask order, putting the health of the community at risk. Residents can submit a concern to us using by calling 970-498-5500 or visiting larimer.org/codecompliance/report.

Health department action on concerns

Concerns will be addressed based on complaints that are reviewed and prioritized. County health workers will call a business once they have received multiple unique complaints about a particular business or facility. At that time, staff will check in with management to discuss what steps they are taking to require masks and to offer suggestions and support if needed. If additional concerns are received, staff will contact the business again and may arrange a site visit. If additional enforcement is needed, a written notice of violation may be given. 

Pat Ferrier is a senior reporter covering business, health care and growth issues in Northern Colorado. Contact her at patferrier@coloradoan.com. Erin Udell reports on news, culture, history and more for the Coloradoan. Contact her at ErinUdell@coloradoan.com. Please support their work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a subscription today.