Westport’s differing mask protocols create issues with consistency, facilitate stigma and confusion


Photo by Maya Hruskar '23

Connecticut governor Ned Lamont lifted the mask mandate for vaccinated individuals on May 19, posting the above information on his twitter account, @GovNedLamont. Local businesses have differed in their approaches to lifting the mask mandate, and Staples will not be lifting the mandate for this year.

A customer impatiently taps their foot against the floor as they wait in line, longing to get outside and breathe fresh air. “Why do we still have to wear these things?” they ask the person behind them, jabbing a finger at their blue surgical mask. 

Despite Governor Ned Lamont’s decision to completely lift the mask mandate for vaccinated individuals on May 19, many Connecticut businesses, institutions and residents have opted to continue wearing masks, while others desire to take them off. 

Private Connecticut businesses are not required to lift their mask mandates and may enforce COVID-19 safety protocols, such as wearing masks and social distancing, as they wish.

“The owner’s or operator’s preference,” Connecticut Department of Public Health stated in their COVID information pamphlet, “may be to exercise caution in protecting health without needing to keep people appropriately distanced or needing to determine whether or not a person is vaccinated.”

Many retail businesses have opted to continue requesting that customers wear masks due to the inability to confirm vaccination honor codes. One such local business, the Age of Reason toy store, does so to ensure that unvaccinated children remain safe while shopping. According to the owner, Dina Burger, the decision to continue requiring masks has not impacted her sales.

“I don’t think in a retail business having a mask mandate really hurt businesses once people felt a little bit more comfortable to go out and about,” Burger said. “I think particularly [for] areas that are more social, like restaurants, and maybe gym venues, [it was] important to lift the mandate so that people would feel more comfortable.”

This reigns true for the local YMCA, where neither staff nor vaccinated gym-goers are asked to wear masks, as well as many restaurants who operate on an honor-based system. Hudson Malone, a new Westport restaurant located at 323 Main Street, claims that, though most customers decide to wear masks, they are confident that those who choose not to are being safe. 

“We’re not here to police people,” Patrick Gene, General Manager of Hudson Malone, said. “We trust people that come to our door.”

Even when customers are not specifically asked to wear masks, many continue to do so for a variety of health and social reasons. 

“I still wear a mask in public places such as grocery stores and restaurants just to be sure,” Shanti Wimmer ’23 said. “You never know if someone in the store is potentially sick or who they have interacted with.”

Some Westport residents also speak to the social and partisan stigma surrounding mask-wearing. On social media, it’s common to see politically charged jokes surrounding the implications of mask wearing.

“I think both sides will continue to judge both sides no matter where you stand,” Oscar Scher ’23 said. “The maskless will judge the masked, and the masked will judge the maskless.”

As a few weeks have passed since the lifting of the mandate, more Westporters have adjusted their year-long habit to not wear a mask. Events, such as the outdoor rally against antisemitism on June 2, now host a majority of attendees who are maskless.

“This was the first time in 15 months that people have been able to be out in public and not be afraid to enjoy each other’s company,” Rabbi Greg Wall of Beit Chaverim synagogue said.

This was the first time in 15 months that people have been able to be out in public and not be afraid to enjoy each other’s company.

— Greg Wall

Staples will not be lifting the mask mandate within the school building, as per the current Connecticut guidelines. These guidelines highlight schools as one of the only locations in which both unvaccinated and vaccinated people are still required to wear masks.

“I do feel that mask-wearing is a mitigating measure and protective for all staff and students,” Staples Nurse Kris McGrath said. “It is impossible to know who is vaccinated, so it is always best to wear masks and social distance when possible.”

However, Staples is looking toward the 2021-22 school year for possibly lifting the school mask mandate. As of May 10, youth aged 12-15 became eligible for the vaccine along with those 16 and older. In addition, Connecticut residents will no longer be able to claim religious exemption from the vaccine, implying that the majority of the Staples community should be vaccinated by the 2021-22 school year.

“We’ve come this far,” Principal Stafford Thomas said, “[…] so we’ll probably just continue for the next few weeks. Next year, the hope is we [won’t] have to start masked.”

All students are reliant upon the Staples’ administration’s decision for masking. After a couple months of relatively low COVID-19 outbreaks, many students feel confident in the school choices surrounding the unknown future.

“I think the school would do whatever they feel is safe,” Benji Titlebaum ’22 said. “I trust their judgment.” 

In the meantime, Staples is planning on taking advantage of the warm summer weather with more outdoor and maskless activities, such as mask breaks and gym classes. 

Additionally, for the first time since 1994, graduation will be held outside with attendees on the bleachers. However, Staples has not yet decided how to proceed with masks and attendees during the ceremony.

“Because of the limited numbers, it will probably just be parents and immediate family,” Thomas said. “So, you could have the possibility of just the students masked, and I’m not sure about the stands yet.”

For both now and the future, businesses, schools and individual community members alike must assess what they are most comfortable with regarding masks and COVID-19.

“There is always the chance of spread, especially among unvaccinated individuals,” McGrath said. “Until we know how long we are protected by the vaccine, we should remain cautiously optimistic and continue to do what we can to protect ourselves and others.”