Bristol, VA businesses brace for Northam mask mandate

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BRISTOL, VA (WJHL)- Across Virginia, businesses are bracing for a mandated mask policy that will begin on Friday. In Bristol, it means customers who are 10 and older must wear face coverings at public places on one side of town. For some business owners on the Virginia side of State Street, the mask policy puts them in an uncomfortable position.

Cranberry Lane owner Karen Hester doesn’t feel like she has the authority to make customers wear masks inside her store.

“If I’m mandating them to wear a mask, I’m not in the position, after being closed for two months and no sales coming in, to offend that customer and potentially lose a sale,” said Hester.

And with open Tennessee businesses just across the street, Virginia businesses hope the mask rule doesn’t drive customers away.

“With our neighbors across the street being so close, certainly it poses a problem,” said Hester. “For somebody that is clearly opposed to wearing a mask, they’re probably going to go right across the street and shop or eat, and not patronize the Virginia businesses.”

Restaurant patrons can take off their masks when eating or drinking, according to Governor Northam’s Executive Order. But for Burger Bar owner Joe Deel, the logic doesn’t add up.

“Everyone’s going to be sitting around eating without a mask. And then to have to put it right back on?” said Deel. “So they’re not going to be spreading the germs for the 10 or 15 minutes? I beg to differ with the Governor when he says he’s using science. I don’t feel the Governor’s using science nor common sense.”

The City of Bristol, Virginia has been allowing the shutdown of Piedmont Avenue on certain weekends to allow the Burger Bar and neighboring restaurant Quaker Steak & Lube to have expanded outdoor dining. But with masks now required for diners, Deel believes the amount of customers coming to eat on the weekend will drop significantly.

“This really does feel like the final slap in the face for the businesses on the Virginia side,” Deel said.

Blackbird Bakery is trying to prepare customers in advance for the new mask policy.

“We’re just trying to do what the Governor says,” said kitchen manager Josie Creech. “We’ve already put a sign up. That way people know, as of Friday, that it will be required for people that come in. They’ll have to be wearing masks.”

Bristol, Virginia Mayor Neal Osborne believes it’s surprising the mask policy is coming weeks after reopening.

“We’ve been fortunate that we’ve not had a lot of cases,” said Osborne. “So it is kind of interesting that the same restrictions be placed on us when we’ve had three or four active cases in the city at most. It’s the same restriction as Fairfax County or Richmond who’ve had hundreds of cases.”

Bristol Chamber President & CEO Beth Rhinehart said the success of Bristol depends on both the Virginia and Tennessee sides doing well.

“The longer this goes on, particularly speaking about the Virginia side, the more difficult it is for businesses to face another week of being closed without significant revenues,” said Rhinehart.

Rhinehart hopes the state will take a more regional approach to health and safety rules, considering the low COVID-19 case numbers in Southwest Virginia.

“Just the safety and the overall responsibility that we’re seeing from our citizens here, we would hope that would have some consideration given to it,” she said.

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