Local businesses talk mask mandates for employees

Local Coronavirus Coverage

TRI-CITIES, Tenn./Va. (WJHL) – While many national chains have dropped their mask mandates, local employers said it’s too soon.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced Wednesday that those who are fully vaccinated can ditch the face coverings in most cases while indoors and outdoors, but many employers have not yet gotten around to updating mask requirements in the workplace.

Large local employers like East Tennessee State University and Eastman Chemical Company said that they are considering the new mask guidance from the CDC, but no changes have been made to their mask policies yet.

“While we are discussing the new mask guidance from the CDC regarding people who are fully vaccinated, we have not yet made any changes to our policy.”

Eastman Chemical Co. Director of Corporate Communications Betty Payne

Ballad Health announced Friday all patients, visitors, and staff will still be required to wear a mask in Ballad facilities.

“While the recent CDC announcement that fully vaccinated people can safely remove their masks for nearly all indoor and outdoor activities is a very positive and uplifting announcement, it is also an affirmation of the importance of COVID-19 vaccines in fully re-establishing regular activities. However, there are caveats to this guidance, including in healthcare settings. To that end, Ballad Health is maintaining mask requirements for all patients, visitors, team members and providers in all hospitals, outpatient facilities, Ballad Health Medical Associates offices and long-term care facilities, in accordance with CDC  guidelines. We know that, while the COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective, there are a small number of breakthrough cases that do occur, and it’s our responsibility to keep precautions in place at this time. We also know the COVID-19 vaccines are overall safe, very effective in preventing severe cases of COVID-19 and carry the overwhelming potential to restore our pre-pandemic lives. The thousands of people in the Appalachian Highlands who have been fully vaccinated can attest to this, and also that COVID-19 vaccines are key to a better life for you and your loved ones. Ballad Health thanks the members of our community who have been proactive in getting vaccinated, and we encourage those who are still undecided to seek reputable, trustworthy information. Our lives can return to normal – but it will take all of us doing our part.”

Ballad Health

With the CDC and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam easing mask recommendations this week, local businesses said they are reworking their mask requirements in the workplace, but the overwhelming sentiment is that the choice is simple: get vaccinated or wear a mask.

“Most of my staff has been vaccinated, we’re very thankful for that and thankful that we have the easy availability to go get vaccinated, that was great and that worked out good on our behalf,” Southern Churn owner Karen Hester explained. “You know, it was kind of mixed in the store today, there was some excitement that the CDC is allowing people not to have to wear masks. Now, we had a mixed bag we had some folks that came in the store that didn’t have a mask on. And then we had some folks that were still wearing their mask, and certainly, when you come in our stores, that’s going to be kind of going forward for a while, I think that we’ll have folks that will still feel more comfortable wearing them.”

Hester said she believes that a large majority of people are ready to get rid of their masks

“We hope that people still continue to stay safe and wash your hands and if you’re sick then don’t come to work and practice all the things that we’ve learned over the past year. Certainly when the onset of this happened, you know, we were expecting to have a two week, pause or a shutdown, which turned into a year, so we are more than happy to get back to whatever normal,” she added.

After the governor’s announcement that businesses would be permitted to ask for proof of vaccination in Virginia, Hester said she was uncomfortable with that idea.

“We’ve actually been wearing our mask all along and all of our staff and employees have been continuing to wear them. You know I don’t know that I would, you know, take it upon myself to approach a customer to say, ‘please show me your vaccination card,’ I think that’s something very personal. You know, I would hope that if people weren’t vaccinated or felt like that they could spread the disease in some way that they would do their part and wear their mask. I do know that folks have been coming in the store, even today saying, ‘I know we don’t have to wear a mask now’, ‘I have been vaccinated.’ So they’ve been very forthcoming and telling us that information, which is very nice, but I certainly don’t feel comfortable in asking somebody to see their card, and stuff like that,” she said.

In Johnson City, Tennessee, businesses are devising plans to give employees access to vaccinations in order to shed more masks in the workplace.

“I applaud the CDC on that, on following the science,” Jeff Bedard, CEO & president of Crown Laboratories said. “I really think some of the hesitation around the vaccination that people are seeing is around the lack of reward for getting vaccinated, right so many people have told me. Why should I get vaccinated Jeff if I still have to social distance if I still have to wear a mask, do these things really work then? And I think the science has come through to show that vaccinations work, we should all get vaccinated, and then we can open up completely.”

He added that Crown and Ballad Health will soon be teaming up to host a vaccination event at Crown Laboratories for employees and their families to get the shot.

“We’re excited to say that we’re going to work with Ballad Health and we’re going to have some on-site vaccinations in the next couple of weeks. We’ve got about 50 of our employees that have signed up for those, and so, currently we require a mask for people within the manufacturing facility, and we hope once this vaccination effort is done, we’re going to be at a level where we can make those masks optional. We’ll never tell people they can’t wear a mask, obviously if that’s where they’re comfortable, we’re going to allow them to do that and we encourage them to do it, but we feel like within the next month or so, we’ll be able to remove that mandate, and have a population that’s mostly vaccinated,” Bedard added.

For the most part, Bedard said the employees who work at the corporate offices on Mockingbird Lane have been vaccinated, and they hope to encourage the rest of the 320 or so employees at the manufacturing facility to follow suit.

“We did send a Monkey Survey out, and allowed people to answer that question but specifically more about their interest in having a vaccination if we bring that on-site, and we were pleasantly surprised so many of our employees have already taken advantage of the vaccination opportunities to date, but some have said hey they just haven’t had time or they didn’t make an appointment so we wanted to make it easy for them, and so we were really happy with the amount of people that responded back to say ‘yes, if you brought it on site, myself, my wife, my kids will all come in and get vaccinated,’ so that was, that was a positive effect,” he said.

Crown Laboratories is a skincare manufacturer. Down the road, also in Johnson City, LabConnect, a laboratory offering sample management services, has also been pondering over its employee mask mandate following the CDC announcement.

“We have about a little bit over 200 employees working from the building that when they’re in their workspaces, if they are not in a closed office, they have to be masked and so, even, and right now we did a little bit of enhancement, when we had another spike about what a couple of months ago, in the area where, even if you’re six feet apart, we still require masks just in you know in our building,” Barry Simms, COO of LabConnect explained.

LabConnect did a company vaccination program through the State of Tennessee a few months ago, he said, because the company is in healthcare, it fell in phase 1a2.

“We actually had a corporate vaccination day that we went to and so we know that about 60% of our staff are vaccinated here, and many of which, you know, signed up and did it through the corporate program but we’ve also added staff. We have asked staff to let us know if they are vaccinated, but there’s not any sort of bracelet or anything that we know, you know, just walking around our building who’s vaccinated and who’s not vaccinated. So in, you know, for us we work in the healthcare industry, obviously, you know for HIPAA regulations you can’t just walk around to someone who’s unmasked and say, ‘Are you vaccinated?'” he said.

Simms added that the company will be going over its mask policy in the coming weeks.

“We will be revisiting our policy obviously just with this new CDC guidance, and how we’re going to move forward but I would assume that you know, as we start seeing how we need to unfold this we are going to revisit our policy and we’ve already started having discussions with our HR group and executive team,” he said.

Follow News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais on Facebook and Twitter for news updates.

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