- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2020

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Jeff Brown opened his downtown Williamsburg restaurant, the Brick Oven, in mid December. By late March, as Kentucky began enacting sweeping restrictions to bludgeon the spread of COVID-19, his sales had dropped to a scant 12 percent of normal.

For the next several months, after cleaving half his staff - many of whom are relatives - he, like many small business owners across the state, still barely managed to make ends meet.

In late May, when Gov. Andy Beshear allowed restaurants to reopen at partial capacity, Brown did so immediately. And two months later, when wearing masks in public was mandated by way of executive order, Brown, a former Marine from Corbin, was steadfast about enforcing it among his staff and customers.

That’s when he noticed his business earnings started sinking, again.

Brown got cussed out by a mask-less couple in July after he politely asked them to don one while placing their order at the counter. The husband told him to kiss his ass.



Others were less caustic, but they still refused. Often, customers hungry for pizza would pointedly ask Brown or his staff whether they enforced the mask mandate. When they said yes, “they just turned around and walked out the door,” sometimes saying, ‘When you stop, I’ll come back,’” Brown recalled on Monday in his restaurant.

This hard-line refusal among some didn’t let up. By late August, the Brick Oven’s revenue had dropped 30 percent.

“The mask mandate was one of the hardest mandates that hit us,” Brown said, almost in disbelief. “You wouldn’t think it would be, something as simple as that. It was shocking for us. We seen a huge, huge drop in sales.”

He started to liken this collective refusal to customers requesting a type of pizza that wasn’t on his menu; if enough people requested that item, as a smart business owner, it only seems reasonable to consider offering it, Brown thought.

“When someone’s saying, I want a barbecue chicken pizza, and you don’t offer that. But then you get a bunch of them that says it, you have to kind of step back and say, maybe I should offer barbecue pizza,” he said.

To be clear, Brown knows wearing a mask helps stop spread of the virus. He wears one when he’s in public and he asks that his employees wear one when they’re working. But as a business owner buckling under the weight of enforcing a mandate with no real tools to do so, while forfeiting all that lost business, Brown found himself wedged between a rock and a hard place.

“When it comes to things like this, I feel like I’m put in a spot that I don’t think business owners should have to be put into,” Brown said. “To me, if you’re going to make it a rule, then go by it.”

In other words, if state government is going to issuing a mandate, they should enforce it. “Don’t put it on my plate to have to manage it (and) enforce it,” he said. “To where I have to reap the repercussions from it, as a business owner.”

This tight squeeze is a position many local leaders, public health directors and business owners across Kentucky know too well. And it’s one there isn’t a clear remedy for.

In recent weeks, Beshear has called on local leaders to enforce the mandate in their communities by levying fines against violators if they have to. The only problem is, public health departments, dogged by years of chronic underfunding, lack resources to push greater compliance; police in Kentucky have so far largely opted not to be an instrument of enforcement; and mayors and judge-executives in small towns like Williamsburg, where the population is just over 5,200, are balancing their desire for compliance with the possibility of hurting already limping businesses.

Marcy Rein, public health director for Whitley County, does her best to spread awareness about the benefits of Kentucky’s restrictions. Any enforcement is typically complaint-driven. If Rein’s department can respond, they will. But even that is becoming increasingly difficult.

“It’s an ongoing challenge for us to respond. We don’t have the capacity or the authority to aggressively enforce anything,” she said.

Williamsburg Mayor Roddy Harrison has tried to model good behavior. On Monday, walking around the city’s downtown, he wore a mask that said, “I Love My City.”

He’s made a few Facebook videos, and he has a weekly time slot with a local radio station where he recommends mask wearing and social distancing. His message is centered on “Common decency and love of each other,” he said.

Harrison has personally called business owners to try and convince them to mask up. He’ll couch his message like this: “Look, I don’t like ‘em. They break my face out, I can’t breathe. My nose itches. It’s uncomfortable for me. But then I start remembering about the nurses and doctors and people that are wearing them for 12 hours, and I kind of feel silly for complaining.”

But beyond that, “we’ve never been able to actually figure out how to enforce,” he admitted. Many people in his town “just don’t like to be told what to do.”

And fining businesses isn’t something he wants to do, unless he’s forced to: “I’m not going to lie to you, fining people would make me very uncomfortable. This thing has gone on so doggone long that we’re at a point where I don’t know if we could make people wear them.”

The obvious solution, as Beshear and Kentucky’s Public Health Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack have said for months, is for people to voluntarily follow the simple mandate without force: “Wearing a mask isn’t a statement about your own personal freedom,” Beshear said recently. “It’s about how much you care about somebody else.”

But this plea just isn’t resonating with so many. And as Kentucky’s cases and virus-related hospitalizations continue to surge to historic highs as colder weather settles in, those tasked with upholding the restrictions are at a loss.

‘SO MUCH NON-COMPLIANCE’

By September, while Brown’s sales continued to drop, he made a value decision: watch his business bleed out in front of him, or ease up on enforcing the mask requirement for customers utterly opposed to it. He begrudgingly chose the latter.

“We struggled with it until a month and a half ago, (when) we took a step back and said, do we continue at this rate, which will cause us to close our business permanently?” Brown said. Or, do they make adjustments to “make sure people aren’t getting their space invaded, but if you choose not to put that mask on when you walk inside the establishment, then I’m still going to sell you the product you’re wanting.”

After that change, “when we didn’t force them to abide and we gave them that choice, then sales started going right back up,” he said.

Brown knows this tack contradicts what Beshear has asked of business owners and patrons: businesses are asked to only serve customers with masks, and customers are asked to only patronize businesses that enforce them. But he feels he doesn’t have a choice.

Even though his sales have bounced back from a month ago, it’s only enough to break even; Brown hasn’t cut himself a paycheck in months.

On Monday, when Beshear released a new set of guidelines for counties in the “red zone,” where community spread is most severe, which includes Whitley County, he again asked people to only shop at businesses enforcing best practices, adding that a reduction in patronage will create a “positive incentive” for those businesses to do the right thing.

These are recommendations, not mandates. Last week, Beshear told the Herald-Leader - and this week, the Courier-Journal - that more mandates aren’t the answer; Kentuckians just need to follow the restrictions already in place.

“These steps are working (in places) where people are diligent,” Beshear said. But in other places, where non-compliance is rampant, Beshear said he’s “encouraging local officials to push even harder, the safety precautions in their communities.”

But like Mayor Harrison, Shawn Crabtree, director of the 10-county Lake Cumberland District Health Department in south-central Kentucky, doesn’t know how he can practically achieve better compliance when it’s so widespread. Four of his district’s counties are in the red.

“There is so much non-compliance, it’s hard to know where to start if you were to do it,” he said last week.

Crabtree, like most public health directors, has so far chosen not to fine businesses. Rein, in Whitley County, said it’s not as simple as writing a citation; a health department would need staff to oversee the payment of those fines, and there would need to be someone fielding appeals.

Brown doesn’t want to be fined; he’s already losing money. Following Beshear’s Monday recommendations for red counties, his sales have dropped again, and he’s stressed: “I feel like, as a small business owner, a lot of stuff during the COVID has been put on our shoulders.”

On the mask requirement, since it’s technically a mandate, following it should be mandatory, Brown said. But he can’t afford to uphold it.

He likened a mandate with no teeth to an unseasoned parent disciplining a child: “The moment you tell a young kid that you have the choice whether you’re going to do this, or you’re going to do that, but I hope you do go do this. Well, you’ve got a 50-50 chance whether or not they’re going to do it,” he said.

“If they don’t make the choice to go in the way you want ’em, well then you gave them that opportunity.”

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