Ben Spradling, content manager for the Better Business Bureau. (Submitted photo)

Highly contagious COVID-19 variants have proven to be major curveballs for the general public, especially for business owners, as The Center for Disease Control guidelines continue to shift. Stances on mask mandates and vaccination requirements vary across the country. So where does that leave business owners?

Verifying that a customer has been vaccinated is not an easy endeavor. Businesses may ask to see a patron’s vaccination card, or a photo of it, but that act comes with complications. For one, vaccination cards are easy to forge, and some individuals are opting to fake it rather than get the shot. Plus, many aren’t comfortable carrying around their cards in a pocket or a purse from place to place.

Those issues have increased interest in vaccine passports — apps that can verify a person’s COVID-19 vaccination status. Some states, counties and cities have already gone forward with the development of that technology, but other areas are more reluctant to introduce it due to the types of medical information it shares.

For now, businesses are largely left asking for paper cards, using the honor system or reinstituting mask requirements. Each of those options come with risks most companies are having to consider, and quickly. Because the varying recommendations may conflict with one another, both customers and employees are looking to business owners for clarity.

  • Look local first. The location of your operation may supersede any national announcements. If your state, county or city government has issued a mask mandate in your area, then it’s necessary to uphold those requirements.
  • Create a conversation. Comfort levels regarding facemasks vary. For customers, and especially for your employees, try to establish an outlet for sharing any concerns about the updated guidance. The decision to lift mask requirements in your business may not be yours alone. Host conversations with your team and engage your customers — maybe even send out a survey — to find out if a mask-free workplace is the right fit for right now. Plus, letting everyone help make that call may go a long way toward building trust.
  • Keep things clear. Wherever your business lands on vaccine requirements, attempt to be as transparent as possible. Provide customers background on factors that impacted your business’s choice. And if you do decide to honor requirements, arm employees with a clear plan for how they can verify customers’ vaccination statuses. If policies or procedures have or have not changed as a result of any updated guidelines, be open about the status of those items. Be sure to post signs at your physical place of business, as well as digital reminders on your website and social media channels.
  • Protect your business reputation no matter the decision you make. As a business owner, you may require a mask or proof of vaccination from customers who come to your business in person. However, to avoid accusations of discriminatory practices, it is wise to implement alternatives for members of the public who cannot get vaccinated or who have chosen not to. Alternative services could include curbside pick-ups, online sales and outdoor dining areas. If a customer won’t agree to the alternative methods you offer, you may then refuse service on the grounds of health and safety concerns. In addition, private businesses may continue to require customers to wear a mask and social distance, regardless of their vaccination status.
  • Stay responsive. You’re not going to please everyone. Facemasks tend to be a polarizing topic, so some customers or employees will likely disagree with your business’s position. Those differences may even make their way online. When that happens, respond. Even if the review, comment or post feels especially negative, that feedback is an opportunity to publicly provide some necessary context. How you respond may even separate your business from your competitors.

— Ben Spradling, content manager for the Better Business Bureau Great West + Pacific.