Without a mask warrant, Anchorage businesses must decide what they risk to public health

Mark Robokoff, owner of AK Bark, shows off a vest designed to protect small dogs from predators. He says he has had to balance protecting his staff from COVID while avoiding confrontations with aggressive anti-masks. (Liz Ruskin / Alaska Public Media)

Outside a pet supply store on Dimond Boulevard, there is a sign asking unvaccinated customers to wear masks. Owner Mark Robokoff said that was enough to provoke some people.

“We’ve just had an unreasonable amount of pushback from people – people who verbally attack our staff. Swear. Act completely, not the way you expect people in civilized society to act, ”said Robokoff, whose store is called AK Bark.

Robokoff does not ask for vaccination records. It’s about the honor system. He can imagine what would happen if he made everyone wear a mask. Arguments are likely, he said. Maybe even violence.

“So we’re really trying to find a balance here,” he said, “between the safety of our customers and our staff, the convenience and comfort of our customers and our staff, and also, really, the safety of those people who do not agree with our decisions.

COVID cases are on the rise again in Anchorage, but this time there is no municipal mask mandate and no authority telling businesses how to prevent the spread of COVID. This leaves some business owners like Robokoff in the awkward position of deciding how prepared they are to confront their customers and employees to protect public health.

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Robokoff is frustrated enough to talk about it, even though he’s worried that publicizing his masking policy is costing him customers. He has also decided to make vaccination a requirement for new hires and he believes this has deterred job applicants.

Employers large and small are in the same boat.

“It’s a tough time to throw in gauntlets, when it’s a sellers market on the job and people can say to you, ‘Well, I’m just going to go somewhere else,’ said Jennifer Bundy-Cobb, director of employee benefits. to the Wilson Albers consulting firm, which advises employers.

Some companies are considering charging their unvaccinated employees more for their health insurance, Bundy-Cobb said, but so far all is talking about. It seems to him that small entrepreneurs all wait for the big companies they serve to come first, to establish mandates that other companies would follow after.

“There are a lot of employers who would like to do something with teeth, and they’re struggling because they don’t want to lose people,” she said. “And they don’t want bad press, do they?” “

No company wants to be the next to attract anti-vaccine protesters.

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Bundy-Cobb said she also knew of employers in Anchorage who were not struggling at all because they did not impose any safety measures.

“We have employers who don’t want to get involved in this discussion, and don’t believe it’s anyone’s business, and they’re just going to go about their business,” she said. “And if anyone gets sick within its four walls, so be it.”

At the DaVinci Salon in Midtown, owner Jen Bersch isn’t struggling either. She has opted for extensive hygiene measures and she is ignoring COVID skeptics or anti-masks. To get through the door, you hide and wait on the sidewalk. Signs throughout the living room set out policies and protocols.

“Each customer receives a bag with all of their tools – clips, capes, everything – all sanitized for each person,” she said.

Masked lady in an apron in a living room.  Connect to top reads "Love is in the air and so are germs, so please wash your hands."
Jen Bersch, owner of Salon DaVinci, has extensive security protocols. She gives no reason to COVID skeptics or anti-masks. (Liz Ruskin / Alaska Public Media)

She took out two stations to allow more distance.

Even when the number of cases plunged earlier in the summer, she did not give up.

“I said to my staff, ‘Okay, this is when people are going to start to really relax. And we have to remember that we don’t have the possibility to do it, ”she recalled.

Some customers have said they don’t need to mask because their vaccines will protect them. Bersch did not give in.

“I keep reminding people, ‘Look, we’re just in your breath, we’re right in your face,'” she said.

She has fewer stylists working. She leaves 15 minutes between clients to disinfect. The gloves that she and her staff constantly change cost almost $ 50 a box. It has attracted customers drawn to its security-focused protocols, and it has raised its prices, but not enough to cover the additional costs.

“We are regressing financially about every month, but we cannot close,” she said. “I mean, like, what are we going to do?” What are the customers going to do?

Bersch is comfortable with the choices she made, but her business is paying the price.

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