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With revised masking rules, will things change for store and restaurant workers?


Now that the CDC has updated its masking guidance, how much will things change for workers at stores and restaurants? During this pandemic, they've been at the center of confrontations over masks. NPR's Alina Selyukh checked in with some of them to see how they're feeling now.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: From the early pandemic days, masks became a flashpoint. Annie Shi is an operating partner at a restaurant called King in Manhattan.

ANNIE SHI: 2020 was definitely in the depths of despair because, you know, people didn't want to wear masks, and it was a fight every single night for about three months.

SELYUKH: The fights faded as masks became common habit and companies told workers not to engage with anti-mask customers. For weeks, new changes have been happening. Some of the last holdout states have been relaxing indoor mask rules. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says the majority of Americans live in areas where it's OK to skip face coverings. But for workers, that doesn't mean the anxiety is over. Chuck Haughwout is a produce manager at a Stop & Shop in Long Island.

CHUCK HAUGHWOUT: As we're all dealing with COVID, just the pure volume of people walking by does give you a certain feeling.

SELYUKH: Some big retailers like Walmart, Amazon, Target have also relaxed mask rules for workers. That means many of them have been making their own personal and fraught choice about whether to stop masking. Haughwout says lots of shoppers have ditched masks, and a share of his co-workers are feeling liberated. But he is still nervous.

HAUGHWOUT: There's a certain exhaustion. And you kind of want to say, well, you know what? I've done the right thing all this time; I'm not going to just take the mask off while we still have a lot of people coughing all over the place and you don't know why.

SELYUKH: Crystal Orozco says her co-workers have been having the same conversations. She's a supervisor at a Jack in the Box in a Sacramento suburb, which has a very active drive-through.

CRYSTAL OROZCO: We can hear the people at the menu board, and some of them are coughing like crazy. And it's like, ugh, they're going to come to our window like that.

SELYUKH: She thinks people who are sick don't seem to worry that much about going to a fast-food drive-through.

OROZCO: When we open that window, the air blows in, and it blows towards us, and that's what makes it more terrifying.

SELYUKH: She says she plans to keep wearing a mask for a while. Many workers hope this won't lead to a new flare-up of mask fights. Over the past two years, people have berated waiters and store staff for wearing and enforcing mask rules. Will this get worse in a post-mandate world? Many restaurants also face another contentious matter - checking vaccine status. Diners simply can't wear masks.

VARUN MEHRA: Because, realistically, a customer is not going to pull it down to take a bite and put it back up. That's just not - it's just not a very hospitable way to eat.

SELYUKH: Varun Mehra is a general manager of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. He says many in his industry are really tired and ready for a change. But they also remember the last time there was a moment when the pandemic seemed to turn a corner - last summer.

MEHRA: There was, like, that three weeks where everybody took their mask off, you know? (Laughter) And then we went right back to it with delta.

SELYUKH: Last year did not deliver on the hot vax summer. Annie Shi in Manhattan hopes this will be the one.

SHI: It's been such a journey, and the goal posts have changed every couple months, as CDC standards have changed. And we're really looking forward to the moment where we can dictate what service looks like because it is how we think hospitality should feel in a restaurant.

SELYUKH: She and her staff are still masking. But thinking back to 2020, with masks and shields and gloves in hundred-degree weather, she says anything feels easier than that.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONES MEADOW'S "OPPOSITE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.

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