To mask or not to mask? That is the question for Vermont retailers as they reopen.


Americans emerging from lockdown will be facing difficult decisions about the risks they’re willing to tolerate. Here are tips for staying safe. USA TODAY

Mark Bouchett was working the front door Monday at Homeport, the home and kitchen store he owns on Burlington’s Church Street. Bouchett doesn’t normally greet everyone who comes into his store, but these are not normal times.

Vermont’s nonessential retailers were able to open on a limited basis Monday for the first time in months. Bouchett wanted to keep tabs of how things are going for his staff and customers, especially when it comes to masks and social distancing.

“We’re just about to crack the seal on what promises to be an interesting day,” Bouchett said.

Bouchett is not requiring customers to wear masks, but he is offering them disposable masks if they don’t have masks of their own. Let’s just say he really wants everyone to wear a mask.

More: How shoppers respond to the reopening of Vermont stores after a 2 month coronavirus shutdown

“Obviously all our staff are wearing them,” Bouchett said. “We know people have mixed feelings. If they refuse a mask I’ll give them a more serious reminder about social distancing. That’s our plan. Like any plan, we’ll adapt and change. If folks aren’t behaving we’ll insist they wear masks.”

Gov. Phil Scott confirmed Monday that although his orders make no mask requirements for customers, stores can refuse service to customers who won’t wear masks.

In Williston, the big box stores like Staples, New Balance and AT&T were opened Monday for walk-ins, requiring masks. PetsMart and Home Depot have been open — PetsMart requires masks, Home Depot does not, but does count everyone coming in the door to make sure they don’t exceed their regulated capacity.

You’re not getting in without a mask

Marc Sherman, co-owner of Outdoor Gear Exchange, across Church Street from Homeport, is not waiting to gauge the behavior of his customers to decide whether to require masks. You won’t get into OGE without a mask.

“We are very committed to the concept that everybody is discussing around social distancing and the importance of avoiding the spread of COVID-19,” Sherman said. “Our staff is expected to wear masks to protect the public. It’s reasonable for us to expect the public to wear masks to protect us.”

That said, there’s no substitute for having people in the store, Sherman said, even though online sales and curbside pickup have provided a limited amount of revenue since retailers were shut down in mid-March by orders from Gov. Phil Scott.

The bathrooms and changing rooms at OGE are closed, and Sherman changed some of the foot traffic patterns within the store in the interest of maintaining social distancing.

“People can take stuff home and try it on,” he said. “We don’t have the resources to clean up after every person.”

Sherman is limiting the number of customers in the store to 50, and has given his managers the authority to adjust that number downward if it begins to feel like too many people to safely handle.

The state issued guidelines for stores set to reopen on Monday. Measures included mandating that employees wear facial coverings or masks; requiring employees to go through health and safety training for COVID-19; and setting an occupancy limit for the number of people allowed in stores. 

Some Burlington stores go beyond governor’s requirements, remain closed

Sarah Thaneuf, owner of Slate, a home decor store on Church Street, said the occupancy limit allowed her to have one person per 200 square feet or 25 percent of her store’s maximum capacity, whichever was greater. 

Under those guidelines, Thaneuf could have up to 20 customers in the store, but she decided to cut that number in half, including staff, and to only allow people in by appointment.

“Honestly to start there will be one or two people in the store,” Thaneuf said. “We have a sign that says, ‘We’re here, all you need to do is call us and we’ll let you in.’ That gives us control so we can wipe down handles and give customers masks if they don’t have one. I hope it doesn’t make any one mad.”

Slate is all about experiencing the products in the store, Thaneuf said, but she worried about keeping customers six feet apart.

“It’s really hard if two people are looking at the same display,” she said. “We’ll see how cautious people are on their own. We may not need to be that stringent, but we felt it was better to be overly cautious in the beginning.”

Up the Street at Fjallraven Burlington, District Manager Chris Tranten decided not to open the doors on Monday, as did other Church Street businesses such as Tradewinds and Kiss the Cook. Tranten said because his store is part of a national chain, he has the luxury of not being in a hurry to reopen.

“We’re taking a few days to make sure we’re going above and beyond the requirements of the state,” Tranten said. “The biggest thing is making sure the staff that works the sales floor is trained on all things safety.”

Tranten is “shooting for” opening next Monday, May 25.

“We will ask guests to wear masks and we’ll have disposable ones to offer up as they’re coming in,” Tranten said. “We’re excited to welcome our guests back in. It’s been tough for everybody. I’m excited to take a step back to some sort of normalcy.”

Contact Dan D’Ambrosio at 660-1841 or Follow him on Twitter @DanDambrosioVT. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Sign up today for a digital subscription. 

Read or Share this story: