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Workers Stress as Mask Rules Eased     03/07 09:03


   JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) -- Leo Carney worries that bigger crowds and 
mask-less diners could endanger workers at the Biloxi, Mississippi, seafood 
restaurant where he manages the kitchen. Maribel Cornejo, who earns $9.85 an 
hour as a McDonald's cook in Houston, can't afford to get sick and frets 
co-workers will become more lax about wearing masks, even though the fast food 
company requires them.

   As more jurisdictions join Texas, Mississippi and other states in lifting 
mask mandates and easing restrictions on businesses, many essential workers --- 
including bartenders, restaurant servers and retail workers --- are relieved by 
changes that might help the economy but also concerned they could make them 
less safe amid a pandemic that health experts warn is far from over.

   Many business owners on the Mississippi Gulf Coast were glad Gov. Tate 
Reeves decided to eliminate mask requirements, limits on seating in restaurants 
and most other binding restrictions. "But the workers themselves... especially 
ones that have pre-existing conditions, they're scared right now," Carney said.

   "This just puts us back in a situation where we're on the frontlines, under 
the gun again," said Carney, who sees Black Mississippians facing the greatest 
risks from the decision that took effect Wednesday. COVID-19 has 
disproportionately affected Black and Latino people in the United States, and 
many Gulf Coast restaurants have a significant number of Black employees.

   Public health experts tracking the trajectory of more contagious virus 
variants have warned that lifting restrictions too soon could lead to another 
lethal wave of infections. Although vaccination drives are accelerating as drug 
manufacturers ramp up production, many essential workers are not yet eligible 
for COVID-19 vaccines in Mississippi and other states.

   Alabama's state health officer on Friday advised residents to keep following 
standard infection-prevention recommendations even though the governor is 
letting the state's mask mandate expire next month.

   "There is nothing magical about the date of April 9. We don't want the 
public to think that's the day we all stop taking precautions," State Health 
Officer Scott Harris said.

   The governors of Iowa, Montana, North Dakota also have ended mask 
requirements or plan to suspend them soon. The governor of South Carolina on 
Friday lifted an executive order requiring face coverings in government office 
buildings and restaurants, leaving it up to state administrators and restaurant 
operators to develop their own guidelines.

   Governors in several other states, including Michigan and Louisiana, eased 
the operating limits for bars, restaurants and other businesses in recent days.

   The National Retail Federation, the largest retail trade association in the 
U.S., issued a statement Wednesday encouraging shoppers to wear masks. Some 
retail chains, including Target and supermarket operator Albertson's, plan to 
continue requiring them for both customers and workers in states that no longer 
make them mandatory.

   Texas Retailers Association President and CEO George Kelemen said he thinks 
many members will continue to require workers --- but not necessarily customers 
--- to wear masks and other protective gear.

   "Retailers know their customers best," he said.

   McDonald's cook Cornejo, 43, said the end of Texas' mask mandate next week 
alarms her because several of her co-workers already were lax about keeping 
their faces covered. She said co-workers she has asked to pull their masks back 
over their noses politely acquiesced, but not always for long.

   "There are just different attitudes," said Cornejo, whose 19-year-old son 
began working as a cashier at the same restaurant to help pay the family's 
bills. "Some say it's just too difficult to keep it on for eight hours, 
especially when it gets hot."

   The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle 
Walensky, encouraged Americans to "do the right thing" by continuing to abide 
by recommendations for routine mask use and social distancing - even if their 
states lift restrictions.

   Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt 
University in Tennessee, said individuals who wear masks still risk infection 
from unmasked shoppers and diners. He called Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's decision 
to lift COVID-19 restrictions starting March 10 "entirely too soon and entirely 
too carefree."

   While deaths and new confirmed cases have plummeted from their January peaks 
nationwide, they're still running at high levels, while outbreak indicators in 
some states have risen in recent weeks. In Mississippi, for example, the 7-day 
rolling average of the virus positivity rate rose from 11.47% on Feb. 19 to 
12.14% on March 5, and the state's 7-day rolling average of daily deaths 
increase during the same period from 15 per day to 20.71 per day.

   Workers in cities that still have mask mandates or jobs at businesses that 
maintain their own virus-prevention rules anticipate defiance from customers 
emboldened by their governors' actions and weary of taking precautions.

   Molly Brooks, 25, a barista at a Farmers Branch, Texas, coffee shop, said 
she has regularly dealt with customers who walked out or bullied her and her 
colleagues when they were asked to wear a mask. Brooks worries how they're 
going to enforce the rule , which the coffee shop plans to keep in place, now 
that Texas' governor lifted the statewide mask mandate.

   "We are gearing up for the emotional toll that this is going to take," said 
the 25-year-old barista, who started working for the coffee shop in November 
while looking for a job in education. "The people who don't want to wear them 
are still going to fight...and now they are going to have even more ammunition."

   Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, home of the University of Mississippi, 
will require masks and allow only eight customers at a time. Although General 
Manager Lyn Roberts believes the rules will make many customers feel safe, 
bookstore employee Paul Fyke said he observed a change in Oxford almost as soon 
as the Board of Aldermen chose to follow the governor's lead and did away with 
the college town's mask mandate.

   "I mean, really, even on the drive home, you can kind of already see there 
were places where, for a lot of people, it was triumph," he said on Thursday, 
the day after Oxford's mask requirement ended. "They were happy to be removing 

   Still, some workers are cautiously hopeful that fewer restrictions will 
bring more customers, tips and job security after a year short on all three.

   In San Francisco, where the mayor last week announced the return of indoor 
dining and the reopening of movie theaters and gyms, Dino Keres had no qualms 
about serving drinks to customers bellying up to the bar inside Sam's Grill.

   That's partly because he was about to get his second vaccine dose, but also 
because nobody on staff was infected when indoor dining was briefly permitted 
last fall. What's more, masks are required unless people are eating, and indoor 
seating is limited to 25% of capacity.

   "We have already went through this once, and now the timing feels about 
right to try it again," Keres said Thursday.

   Ro Hart, an assistant general manager and hostess at Tony's Pizza Napoletana 
in San Francisco, said the return of indoor dining in the city provoked a 
mixture of joy and anxiety.

   "We are happy to be bringing in more revenue, but we are little nervous, 
too, because we have to be more stringent about making sure everyone keeps 
their masks on when they're not eating," Hart said, adding that she would be 
far more worried if San Francisco didn't require masks.

   "We feel for our brothers and sisters at all those restaurants in Texas," 
she said.


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