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Franklin Square, Elmont businesses face crossroads on requiring masks

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Before the coronavirus pandemic, Andrew Sapienza, owner of Sapienza Bake Shop in Elmont urged his employees to follow one key rule: get customers to smile. 

“I would love for my customers and employees to have the mask off,” Sapienza said, referring to mask-wearing amid the pandemic. “It’s a big thing for us here. The only rule in my store is to get a smile; we haven’t done that in a year.” 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on May 17 that New York state’s mask mandate, which has required for more than a year that businesses ensure customers wear masks inside their stores, would be partially lifted on May 19. This allowance is for fully vaccinated New Yorkers and with exceptions in certain locations.

New York state has adopted the Center for Disease Control’s recent recommendation that fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear a mask — unless required by law or by a business. Under the new CDC guidelines adopted by Cuomo, businesses on Long Island can decide whether customers must continue to wear masks inside their stores. 

Franklin Square and Elmont businesses continue to err on the side of caution. 

Sapienza, 40, said that his personal concern about the pandemic led him to implement strict safety measures at Sapienza Bake Shop for his employees and customers. During the pandemic, just two customers at a time have been allowed inside his shop, a policy that remains in place despite the lifting of the mask mandate. Sapienza said that the bake shop’s size, a “tight space” of about 20 sq. feet, as well as the tendency for the coronavirus to spread in crowded areas, led him to adopt this policy.

Sapienza said he is considering lifting safety measures, including taking down the plexiglass barriers that separate customers and workers behind the counter at the shop now that the mask mandate has been lifted and a large share of Nassau County residents are vaccinated.

“I’m looking forward to taking the masks off,” Sapienza said, adding that his shop would continue to require customers to wear masks inside the store for the foreseeable future. 

The shop’s mask-wearing policy has largely been well received by customers, Sapienza said. “We’ve honestly been extremely lucky; we haven’t had a problem.” 

Sapienza said that customers who enter his store without a mask and are told that they are required to wear one typically go back to their car and return with a mask. He noted that the shop provides free masks for those who do not have one upon entering the store.

“I’m not going to make you show me a vaccine card,” Sapienza said. “I’m not going to make you show me a Covid test either. Just put the mask on.” 

Sapienza said that once the infection rate in Nassau County decreases drastically, he would consider allowing customers to go maskless in his shop. “If it’s safe to take the masks off in the store, then I’ll take the masks off in the store,” he said. “For me, the safe bet is you’re only in here for a few minutes, keep your mask on.”

Like Sapienza, Rose Ann Rohrssen, the owner of NY Bone Broths and La Gustosa Ravioli in Franklin Square, is uncomfortable with asking customers to show proof of a Covid-19 vaccination or test. “I don’t think we need to go around producing ID to show people,” she said.

Customers are not required to wear a mask in either of Rohrssen’s stores. “If they come in without one, that is their option . . . we’re fine with that,” she said. 

Despite not requiring customers to wear masks inside her stores, Rohrssen expressed concern about whether customers not wearing masks are fully vaccinated. “Our policy is to continue to approach our customers with a mask,” Rohrssen said. “I don’t necessarily agree with leaving it up to the public.”

Rohrssen’s concern is driven by personal loss. One member of her family died from Covid-19 last year and other family members were infected with the virus, she said. Rohrssen said this made it even more important to take up the necessary precautions inside her stores.

“I think people are still largely wearing their masks,” Rohrssen said. “But I’m going to be more comfortable approaching people with a mask right now, because we don’t know who’s been vaccinated and who hasn’t.” 

This concern has not changed Rohrssen’s view that the economy and society would be better off once the virus is contained and life can return to the pre-pandemic normal. “I don’t believe that people need to live like this forever,” Rohrssen said.

Many are looking forward to no longer having to wear a mask inside local businesses, but uncertainty about whether maskless customers are actually vaccinated is a concern for both businesses and customers alike inside crowded stores now that the mask mandate has ceased.

“You hope people are going to be smart and be careful,” said Steve Oster, 61, of Franklin Square. “I think you should still wear it, vaccinated or not.”

Oster, who is fully vaccinated, said he is unsure that the pandemic is winding down and urged others to wear a mask indoors. “I think it’s too soon to say the [pandemic] is over,” Oster said.

Franklin Square resident Jann Brooks sympathized with individuals in favor of the mask mandate’s removal. “I understand why some people are tired of it . . . kind of living behind a mask,” Brooks said, “especially if it’s not needed if you’re fully vaccinated.”

Brooks, who is halfway to full vaccination, said she is going to continue wearing a mask. She also said that her family and friends have continued to isolate themselves at the level that was recommended during the height of the pandemic last year.

“If I’ve been doing it for a year, it’s not that hard,” Brooks said, adding that the coronavirus remains unpredictable. “I would rather take the precaution and just continue to wear a mask.”