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As reopening continues, local cafes try to keep customers, employees safe.

Mask/table sign: The Black Drop enforces a strict mask policy at all times inside the cafe. // Photo by Holden Predmore

By Holden Predmore

Plexiglass shields, social distancing markers and masks have become a standard part of life. But when you go to get your coffee in the morning, do they protect you and the barista across the counter?

“All of these things must be done together,” said Saskia Popescu, professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Arizona. “They can all help reduce risk, but not eliminate it.”

Popescu teaches near a COVID-19 hotspot and has been researching and writing about local and federal responses to COVID-19 all year.

“Ensuring [employees] have access to adequate masks, patrons are masked when interacting with staff and ensuring adequate ventilation while reducing the capacity will be crucial to reducing risk,” Popescu said.

Creating a low-risk environment isn’t easy though, said Stephanie Oppelaar, owner of the Black Drop Coffeehouse.

“Our old space has no ventilation, no windows to open, one door,” Oppelaar said. “My staff didn't feel comfortable working and, quite honestly, neither did I.”

The Black Drop reopened at its old location on June 8 for to-go service only, and orders were taken and delivered outside, according to the Black Drop Coffeehouse Facebook page.

Oppelaar and the Black Drop moved from their old 300 W. Champion St. location into a new spot across the road at 206 W. Magnolia St. on Oct. 5, and have since opened a lobby with indoor seating.

“We have a big sign that says, ‘No mask, no service,’” Oppelaar said. “Mask policies are printed on every table.”

The Black Drop has also removed anything that is not meant for a single use from the condiment bar and sanitizes every table and chair after use, Oppelaar said.

The Black Drop Coffeehouse is not an outlier in their safety measures. Most coffee shops in downtown Bellingham have similar policies Oppelaar said.

“A lot of precautions we have in place, I see everywhere,” Oppelaar said. “I think it’s pretty standard protocol that a mask needs to be worn in every common area.”

However, the common area doesn't include every space a barista could interact with a customer.

“It feels weird when customers aren't wearing masks and I am,” Katie Ginther, a barista trainer at the Sehome Village Starbucks said.

Starbucks has many of the same expectations for employees that the Black Drop adopted. Masks are required for customers when interacting with staff, but with some caveats. 

“The drive-thru is not long enough for actual social distancing,” Ginther said. “I didn’t want to work in the drive-thru because we don’t require [customers to wear] masks in the window.”

Ginther said she would feel safer if there were more restrictions on how many people were allowed in the store. 

“The lobby is always full,” Ginther said. “It’s kinda crazy how many people seem to not care.”

Reducing occupancy is a key factor to safer indoor environments, Popescu said. 

If customers are making the effort to stay safe, like wearing masks whenever possible, it will lower the risk for front-line workers, Popescu said.

“If people are taking more responsibility for their own personal safety, it makes it easier for us to focus on the things that are our responsibility,” Oppelaar said.

Up-to-date guidelines for personal safety during COVID-19 can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's official website and the Whatcom Health Department’s COVID-19 site

Washington state has also outlined a phased approach for reopening business safely on the Washington State Coronavirus Response webpage.


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