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Businesses navigate mask exemptions

County pushing for greater compliance

As county officials push for more mask compliance, some businesses are having to make tough calls about who should be exempt from the universal mask rules.

Due to privacy laws, businesses cannot legally ask a customer to provide proof of an underlying health issue that would exempt them from wearing a mask, and some worry that shoppers may be abusing the exemption rule by claiming to have a medical condition in order to enter without a mask.

“I think anyone could take advantage of this,” said William Makozak, a former Whole Foods Market employee who left over concerns for his health. “Wearing a mask is to protect other people, to protect them from throwing droplets on the food and the produce. One sneeze, a cough, a laugh, you know, I just don’t understand.”

Makozak was working at the Kahului grocery store when he observed some customers without any face coverings. They’d gotten an exemption to the face mask rule after a quick screening that included general questions about recent travel, contact history and current symptoms, under a Whole Foods policy allowing entry “only to those wearing a face mask/face shield or willing to take a brief health screening.”

“I was just really shocked that this was going on,” Makozak said. “I am 60-plus years old and I feel a little vulnerable, and my wife also, and then going into a store that promised to keep me safe . . . I don’t get it.”

Rebeka Mora, global corporate communications specialist at Whole Foods, said earlier this month that safety measures and operational changes were made in December for all locations regarding the mask mandate.

Although curbside pickup or delivery is also an option for customers, Makozak said that he’s been seeking clarity on whether Whole Foods can issue a health screening as an alternative to masks for those who are medically exempt and shop in person.

“It just doesn’t feel right,” he said. “I am concerned for my co-workers, I am concerned for the other customers in the store, and myself, and my wife.”

Requiring customers with a medical or disability exemption to still wear a face shield is in line with Maui County protocols and the state proclamation, county spokesperson Brian Perry said, adding that businesses also have the authority to refuse entry or service as well, unless an exception like a medical condition applies.

“The proclamation also addresses the use of face shields as a substitute for face masks, but only if there’s an applicable exception to the face covering requirement,” Perry said.

However, the proclamation remains unclear about allowing exempt customers without any face coverings at all to enter a business, even with a health screening.

The Maui Police Department has received four complaints since October regarding mask concerns at Whole Foods, MPD spokesperson Alana Pico said, but no violations were reported.

Businesses who violate the mask mandate may be subject to enforcement, fines or mandatory closure, and the county has communicated with Whole Foods about enforcing the mask mandate, Perry said.

Other businesses have also had to figure out a policy for mask exemption requests.

At Pukalani Superette, president Megan Nakashima said “we are very strict about the mask wearing requirement.”

“We do not allow face shields in the store,” Nakashima said. “If someone is claiming that they cannot wear a mask due to any reason, we provide the option to order groceries through our curbside pickup program, or they can have a manager shop for them on the spot while they wait outside.”

Store owners and managers say they struggle to keep up with frequent changes to the proclamation and that enforcement has been inconsistent.

“I know that this has been a tough year. We’ve all felt the frustration and fatigue that comes with being careful all of the time,” Nakashima said. “But I do hope that people can still see that all we’ve got is each other. I hope that certain ones think about that the next time they decide to yell at my employees because of the rules we all have to follow.”

Referencing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bridget Velasco of the Maui District Health Office said that “most people with underlying medical conditions can and should wear masks.”

However, anyone with respiratory conditions who may be concerned about wearing a mask safely should discuss their concerns with a health care provider about the benefits and potential risks, Velasco said. Generally, most people with asthma can wear a mask.

Another way to lower the risk of contracting or spreading the virus when shopping or working is to stay at least 6 feet away from others. Wearing a mask is not a substitute for not social distancing, she said.

DOH also recommends not to touch eyes, nose and mouth; to clean the basket or shopping cart before use; and to wash hands thoroughly before and after the trip.

“Best practice is utilizing a well-fitting mask covering completely over the nose and mouth to minimize respiratory droplet transmission,” Velasco said. “Obviously, the more people who follow this guidance, the less number of droplets in the air around people that could move from person to person and thus decrease the chance of someone being a vector for COVID (and other diseases).”

County officials also announced Friday that they had launched a new volunteer-based program to increase the use of face coverings throughout Maui, Molokai and Lanai. According to state Department of Health data, proper face mask use in Maui County had reached 96 percent in mid-January, but recently slipped to 88 percent.

“Mask Up for Maui County” enlists volunteers to serve as community ambassadors to kindly remind visitors and residents that face masks are mandatory.

Volunteers will approach unmasked individuals with a copy of the Maui County Public Health Emergency Rules to explain that mask-wearing is essential in all public areas. They will also hand out complimentary face masks; the county purchased 80,000 dual-layer face masks using CARES Act funding.

The first Mask Up for Maui County volunteers come from LahainaTown Action Committee, Lahaina Restoration Foundation, Clean and Safe in Lahaina and Wailuku, security teams from The Shops at Wailea and Lahaina Gateway, Hope Chapel in Kihei, Aunty Mopsy and the Protect Paia group, and Maui Police Department’s community police officers.

Those interested in joining should call Community Liaison Alan Fukuyama at the Office of the Mayor at 270-8299.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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