Retailers and restaurants looking for road map after health orders expire

Still reeling from a year of safety concerns, anti-mask confrontations and financial uncertainty, Tigertree and Preston's press on

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Matt Heaggans, the owner of Preston's: A Burger Joint

Early last week, local retailer Tigertree announced its intentions to open its new brick-and-mortar Clintonville shop on Thursday, May 20, after relocating from the Short North. 

In a message to the public, Tigertree co-founder Josh Quinn excitedly delivered news about the opening, including the updated approach to in-store shopping: Thursday to Sunday hours with 30-minute appointment slots; no more than four people per appointment, with a max of 10 people in the store; masks required for staff and customers. But at the end of the note, Quinn tempered the excitement. 

“When I started writing this it included when we’d drop the appointment requirement,” Quinn wrote. “However the removal of the mask mandate has once again put struggling retailers in an impossible situation. We’ve already heard from other retail friends about hostile interactions over masks. ... So it’s going to take some time to figure out.” 

“The idea was to open a few days a week appointment only just for a few weeks … to make sure that everything was working correctly,” Quinn said by phone on Tigertree’s opening day. “But the governor's abrupt and, I think, ill-timed removal of the mask mandate has given us some pause on our expectation that we would be open to the general public fairly soon.” 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Quinn has been an outspoken critic of the government response to the spread of COVID-19 (including in an Alive editorial), citing the enormous pressure put on businesses to safeguard public health.   

More:Op-ed: One retailer’s view on Gov. DeWine’s face mask flip-flop

And while Quinn feels good about the safety measures Tigertree’s Clintonville shop has put in place — a fully vaccinated staff, air filtration, masks, plexiglass dividers, social distancing — the reopening gives him a sense of déjà vu. “I'm frustrated that, once again, I feel like retail and restaurant workers are just being left out and screwed over,” he said. “This feels very analogous to what happened when the mask mandate for retail customers was first announced and then immediately revoked [in April 2020]. … And I don't understand how my 6-year-old daughter and her classmates can wear masks in school and run around on the playground all day long, but adults can't put one on their face for 20 minutes to go into a shop. It's just crazy to me.” 

For now, with Gov. Mike DeWine announcing that most of Ohio’s pandemic-era health orders will expire on June 2, Quinn is taking a wait-and-see approach. “We'll gradually extend the number of days we're open, but in terms of the appointment and masking policy, it's hard to say. I think it's just going to depend on customer behavior,” said Quinn, who asked for patience while retailers, restaurants and customers attempt to navigate the new normal. “Everybody is trying to sort out these new systems and figure out what makes sense for everybody, and that's definitely generating some frustration on both sides of the counter. So have patience if you're in that store or restaurant and something's not working smoothly.”  

Matthew Heaggans, owner of Preston’s: A Burger Joint in the North Market, has witnessed more frustration than ever in the past several months while operating the food stall. “I've had people physically threaten to fight me,” Heaggans said by phone last week. “I'm not a small person, so for someone to threaten me, it’s a real indication of how frustrated and angry people are.” 

Most of the time, that anger has stemmed from customers who didn’t want to comply with Ohio’s mask regulations, which the North Market has followed. Policing the reluctant maskers and anti-maskers isn’t a job Heaggans ever anticipated, nor one that he has felt the least bit prepared for.  

“There really has not been [government] support for these mandates in private spaces, but we're expected to enforce them,” he said. “I should not be asked to confront people over wearing a mask in my business or public market. ... It was never fair.” 

That feeling of being unprepared continued this month when Gov. DeWine made the announcement about the forthcoming end to the mask mandate for vaccinated individuals, which seemed to carry with it a license to unmask en masse — much to the surprise of Heaggans and his staff. “I looked up and people were just standing in the market, not wearing masks. And we're all like, ‘What's going on?’” he said. “No one provided us with that information [in advance] or gave us the opportunity to arrange any sort of plan.” 

While Heaggans, who is vaccinated, said he looks forward to going places without a mask at some point, the attendant stress of running a business during the pandemic hasn’t diminished. “I think people should still be wearing masks, because from what I understand, our vaccination numbers don't justify not wearing it. And I think that we're in a place socially where people are not going to be honest about whether or not they're vaccinated,” he said, noting in a follow-up this week that the North Market recently told him that masks will be optional beginning June 2. “I have not been instilled with the confidence that I should take people at their word.” 

The overwhelming feeling is one of exhaustion. “I’ve just been emotionally beaten down by the idea that people are so indifferent to the health and safety of our society at large,” Heaggans said. “It's been very, very depressing and disappointing.” 

Still, Quinn at Tigertree did acknowledge some potential silver linings for businesses moving forward. “I think we will come away with this operating a lot more responsibly in a lot of ways. There's a lot of great conversations going on right now about pay and safety and company culture — some big, heavy conversations that we've needed to have for a long time,” Quinn said. “Being able to trust that you can walk into a restaurant or a retail establishment and not get a communicable disease from it should be a given. So figuring out how to have more flexible work environments and better call-off policies for both retailers and restaurants, that's always a big deal during cold and flu season. … I think we're going to have to pay more attention to those things.”