For many Anchorage businesses, the mask mandate changes little. But it still could be enough to slow COVID spread.

a person talks with a customer inside a gun store
Samantha Barr, owner of Granny’s Guns in Anchorage, talks with first-time customer Ronald Nardi on Friday, a day after the city’s mask ordinance went into effect. Nardi, an advanced practice nurse, says he thinks wearing quality masks is important to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Samantha Barr, a co-owner of Granny’s Guns in Anchorage, is no fan of face masks. 

“This is a gun store, so we never liked them,” she said. 

She said she has asthma, wearing a face-covering makes it hard for her to breathe, and she doubts masks actually slow the spread of COVID-19. Plus, she said, gun stores are frequent targets of theft, and having customers come in with face coverings makes her nervous. 

Despite her opposition to the new mask mandate, which went into effect Thursday evening, Barr said that little will change in her store. She plans to tape up a sign in her window. 

“Just ‘Per the new emergency order, whatever, the Municipality of Anchorage now requires masks in all public places,’” she said. “I won’t put that we require it.”

a person stands by a counter at a gun store
Samantha Barr, owner of Granny’s Guns. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

After days of dire warnings from people at recent Assembly meetings about mask mandates’ impact on personal liberty and their threat to small businesses, the mask mandate that went into effect Thursday has little impact on businesses like Granny’s. 

There are large exceptions carved out for everyone from children to members of Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration, as well as for church gatherings and fitness centers. Bronson’s administration has emphasized in public statements that there is no enforcement built into the measure. 

RELATED: Who needs to wear a mask in Anchorage and where? Here’s a breakdown of the new ordinance.

That’s led many businesses around the city — Granny’s Guns included — to implement laissez-faire policies on verifying masks. Matanuska Brewing, for example, wrote on its Facebook page that it would assume customers entering their stores without masks qualified for exemptions. 

“Our young hosts and hostesses will not police this matter,” they wrote. 

But some businesses are making changes to comply with the law.

Fatboy Vapors owner Matt Wagonner said masks were optional for employees before the mandate. Now, employees are required to wear them and customers won’t be allowed inside without masks. 

“If they don’t, we’ll ask them to step outside so that we can go ahead and take their order and bring it directly outside to them,” he said. 

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Wagonner said he isn’t thrilled about the new mandate, but he’s happy to comply with the law. For other business owners, the new mandate has made operating easier. Store owners that previously had the responsibility of asking customers to wear a mask, now have the power of city law to back them up. 

“People know going out, ‘Oh, if I’m going into a store, I have to have a mask’ and they bring a mask with them,” said Laurette Rose, owner of Tiny Gallery, an art shop in downtown Anchorage. 

A sign outside of a series of doors says "Maska Required Notice: In accordance with local regulations, all individuals regardless of vaccination status, must wear a face mask to enter."
A sign outside of REI in Anchorage on Friday alerts customers that local regulations now require that everyone wear a face mask. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

For people like Rose, the mandate brings some hope that things can return to normal and help her business. 

“If you look around downtown, there’s not a lot of foot traffic. There’s not people walking around and that’s not because of the mask mandate. That’s because of case counts being high,” she said. “That’s worse for downtown businesses than any mask mandate could possibly be.”

That idea that mask mandates can help boost the economy is born out by academic research, said Nolan Klouda, director of the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development. 

“Wearing a mask, by providing some level of protection … tends to make people feel safer to go outside of their homes, and perhaps spend money with local businesses,” he said. 

Klouda points out that there is little cost to a mask mandate, other than the price of masks for residents. 

Even for opponents of the mandate like Barr of Granny’s Guns, mask mandates haven’t affected business. Barr said that over the last year, she’s had record sales, part of a nationwide trend of new gun buyers. 

“We were super busy during the last mask mandate,” she said. 

The question of whether more people will wear masks due to the mandates and encourage spending is still open. On Friday, businesses said it was too early to tell.

Research shows masks are imperfect at stopping COVID-19 spread, but they do work. A recent large-scale study found that properly-worn surgical masks can prevent 11% of COVID spread in a population. Cloth masks only prevent 5% of spread, according to the same study.

That might not sound like a lot, but it means a small change in behavior could be enough to reverse trends of growing case numbers. 

“We just have to kind of get the edge off of these peaks,” said South Anchorage Assembly member John Weddleton at the meeting last week where the masking rules were passed. “That 10% can do it if people rally together and just for a little while.”

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.

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