This story was reported by James T. Madore, Victor Ocasio, Tory N. Parrish and Sarina Trangle. It was written by Jonathan LaMantia.
Businesses across Long Island navigated the state’s new requirement that masks be worn in indoor public spaces Monday, with store signage doing a lot of the heavy lifting to let shoppers know they needed to cover their faces to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The rules apply in restaurants, grocery stores, offices and arenas, among other indoor spaces, and businesses can alternatively choose to admit only vaccinated patrons to avoid enforcing the mask rule.
Gov. Kathy Hochul has asked counties to enforce the mandate, but Long Island officials appear willing to do so in a limited way, if at all. Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said her office would not "actively enforce" the mandate but would respond to complaints, and her successor Bruce Blakeman, who takes office Jan. 1, said he will not enforce it. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said his county will focus on educating local businesses.
David Mandell, who owns three supermarkets in Nassau County and three in Queens, said Monday all employees and customers would be required to wear masks in his stores, including the Holiday Farms supermarkets in Roslyn Heights and Glen Head and Locust Valley Market.
"We’re just putting up the signs and making sure everyone is wearing a mask basically," he said.
So far, he has not heard reports of any major customer complaints and said he hasn't made any changes to store policies based on news of lax enforcement by county officials.
"We will have a managers’ meeting tomorrow to see what’s going on, to see if we’ll have to put someone at the door ... or how we’re going to do it. It’s all pretty fresh right now," Mandell said.
Unions representing supermarket workers endorsed the state rules on Monday but said enforcement was the responsibility of companies, not workers.
The mask requirement "is going to help save lives and keep our members safe," said John R. Durso, president of Local 338 of the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union/United Food and Commercial Workers union.
But he said employers must encourage customer compliance.
"It is not our essential workers’ responsibility to enforce this mandate. Employers must make it clear to members of the public that masks are required to shop in their stores," said Durso, who also is president of the 250,000-member Long Island Federation of Labor, a union umbrella group.
Some employees are pitching in. A maskless customer was a couple of feet inside a Starbucks in Long Beach Monday morning when they were politely told by an employee to wear a mask. The customer apologized, retrieved a mask from their car and re-entered the store. The shop’s four employees were masked while the half-dozen customers sitting down were unmasked as they consumed beverages and food. Customers are allowed to remove their masks "while they are actively eating or drinking," according to the state Department of Health.
Labor attorney Domenique Camacho Moran said she has already fielded several calls from business clients asking how to mitigate pushback to the mandate from vaccinated employees, many of whom only got the vaccine to avoid masking in the workplace. "It’s an emotional response from most employees," said Moran, a partner at Farrell Fritz in Uniondale.
The mask rules cover any indoor public space that is not a private residence, according to a spokeswoman for the governor.
Damianos Realty Group, which owns 1.5 million square feet of office space in Suffolk County, said it had printed signs to inform tenants and visitors and ordered masks for guests who need one, said X. Cristofer Damianos, principal of the Smithtown-based firm.
Security guards have been instructed to remind people about the rule. In offices without security staff, Damianos believes the signs are sufficient.
Damianos said some vaccinated people have been confused why they have to wear a mask, but he anticipates everyone will quickly adjust to the new policy.
"By the end of the week, that message will have gotten out to the vast majority of people that are walking into the Starbucks in the morning … or walking into a grocery store," he said. "They’ll find out."