By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Many Montclair business owners say customers are giving them little or no trouble about wearing masks in their establishments, required until March 31 in the township.

But there has been some confusion — for instance, at Clary Anderson Arena. Township officials recently contacted the skating rink to clarify that yes, masks are required when visitors are in the lobby, bathroom or otherwise off the ice, but no, they’re not required when visitors are skating. 

Gov. Phil Murphy lifted a statewide mask mandate last May, but his Executive Order No. 242 allows counties and municipalities to institute their own. Montclair did so in mid-December, initially just for a month, so the Township Council could take stock of local coronavirus case counts and reassess in January. Statewide daily case counts when the Montclair mandate first went into effect were around 6,000, and on some days in the first week of the new year passed 30,000. 

Daily counts have started to drop off — down to about 9,000 when the council extended the mandate on Jan. 18, and 2,417 as of Tuesday. 

Since the extension, Montclair has included exceptions for indoor athletics when masks could interfere with the activity and 6 feet of distance isn’t possible, and during live performances or practices for performance events. Some recreation and school sports games were postponed or canceled due to the initial version of the mask rule, Councilman David Cummings said.

Otherwise, any business or venue open to the public must require that both staff and patrons wear face coverings or face shields when indoors and within 6 feet of others. Montclair’s rule does not make exceptions for businesses or entertainment venues that require proof of vaccination or recent negative coronavirus tests for entry.

Earlier this month, a mother had posted to the Secret Montclair Facebook group, saying that when she took her children to Clary Anderson Arena, there were signs on the door that masks were required, but many people weren’t wearing them. Other patrons said they didn’t need to wear masks, and management told her they were having a hard time enforcing the rule, even in the lobby, she said.

Councilman Peter Yacobellis, who introduced the resolution, told Montclair Local that due to the new allowance for athletic activity, an individual who is skating can remove a mask that “inhibits their ability to breathe safely while skating,” adding that was a difficult judgment call for management to make.

Montclair’s interim township attorney, Paul Burr, called arena management on Monday, Jan. 31, and explained the requirements, Township Communications Director Katya Wowk said.

The amendment to Montclair’s resolution concerning athletics is in line with state Department of Health guidelines, Yacobellis said.   

Clary Anderson Arena management has not yet returned a phone call placed Monday requesting information on its policy.

Essex County’s Richard J. Codey Skating Arena, in West Orange, does require that masks be worn on the ice. That’s in line with rinks in New York City such as Bryant Park and Rockefeller Center, even though they are outdoors.

Jason Gleason, executive director of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District, said that business owners are reporting that most patrons are wearing masks when inside shops and restaurants. 

“There were a large number of businesses that continued with their own mask mandate after the state lifted it in May. So I think Montclair residents are used to it,” Gleason said.

Business owners have always had the right to require masks for employees and patrons, he said.

Montclair Book Center and Eastside Mags were two of the shops that continued to require masks after the state mandate was lifted, even before Montclair’s rule went into effect.

“We never stopped requiring them. We kept our store’s mask mandate, and [kept] giving customers masks,” Emily Mascolo of Montclair Book Center said.

Jeff Beck, owner of East Side Mags, said since he already had a mask mandate for the store, the local law didn’t matter to him much. 

“We don't need the township to tell us. This comes naturally to us. I got small kids at home that I need to keep them safe,” Beck said. 

He said only about 1% of his customers have opposed the mask mandate.

Just Kidding Around co-owner Nissa Murphy said her business has seen no resistance from customers.

Most of their customers are parents, elderly and pregnant people, and they are the ones that are often wearing masks, she said.

And although fitness studios don’t have to require masks now, many, including the YMCA of Montclair, still are, Gleason said.

When the Montclair mask mandate was first introduced in December, some businesses got bad hype on social media for noncompliance, especially nationally owned chain stores such as supermarkets, Yacobellis said.

“They needed to contact their corporate headquarters and to post signs. They needed a minute,” he said.

Kristen Zachares, owner of the Eclectic Chic Boutique, said since the mandate was created quickly, larger businesses needed time to adjust. Because she is a small business owner, she was able to update her customer base about the new mandate.

At Montclair Book Center, there have been instances where customers have been aggressive to staff about having to wear masks. Twice, the staff wound up calling the police, Mascolo said. In one case, a customer wearing a veil claimed it counted as face covering, and wouldn’t leave when asked, Mascolo said.

In another incident, a customer called the store numerous times, saying the type of masks they were requiring weren’t the best for protection, employee Luke McGuffie said. The store eventually blocked the customer’s phone number, McGuffie said.

Because the mandate was created by resolution, not ordinance, there are no penalties for noncompliance. It is up to the management of an establishment to enforce the mandate, Yacobellis said.

“Then they can ask them to leave if they won’t comply. If they don’t leave, then they can call the police. But we hope it will be handled as a de-escalation thing,” Yacobellis said. 

An ordinance, which could have put fines in place, would have taken longer to pass, he said. Passing an ordinance requires two readings at separate meetings as well as a public hearing before a final vote, and even then the new rules take 20 days to go into effect.

“At the height of omicron spread late last year, we wanted to do something immediately to help mediate the spread,” Yacoblellis said. 

The township attorney has only received two calls on the mask mandate, and they were for clarification, Wowk said.

Montclair Police Deputy Chief Wil Young said the department has received one or two calls that were “rather unremarkable” of disputes concerning the mandate, but that the police have seen no real issues.

If a business should call due to noncompliance, the police would respond and resolve the issue, he said.

Sweet Kitchen owner Bensu Vurgun said when the local mandate was first created, Montclair Center Business Improvement District ambassadors stopped by her business and provided  flyers about it. The township had made printable flyers available for download after putting the rule into effect. 

“Our customers are very careful about wearing masks,” Vurgun said. “They wear a mask when going to the bathroom. Our employees wear masks and have their booster shots. So we are doing fine.”

But she is worried about how people will feel about wearing masks in the spring and summer if  the rule is extended past March 31. 

Mascolo said Montclair Book Center will continue requiring customers to be masked up even after March. 

“We have customers who are high-risk, so we do it for them. Once transmission rates are very low, then we can make a mask a choice,” Mascolo said.

— Diego Jesus Bartesaghi Mena contributed to this article.

An earlier version of this post misstated the name of the owner of the Eclectic Chic Boutique.