Mask conflict leads to temporary closure of Ridgway business

  • The Ridgway Conoco convenience store closed temporarily last week. The store reopened a few days later, with a sign posted on the door stating the management wouldn't be asking people why they weren't wearing masks. Photo by Liz Teitz.
    The Ridgway Conoco convenience store closed temporarily last week. The store reopened a few days later, with a sign posted on the door stating the management wouldn't be asking people why they weren't wearing masks. Photo by Liz Teitz.
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Conflicts over mask requirements led a convenience store to temporarily close in Ridgway last week.

Customer who tried to visit the Ridgway Conoco station found the parking lot taped off, the gas pumps unavailable. A sign on the door said the station was closed “due to staffing issues,” but there’s more to the story. Across the street, the Shell station remained open, and it’s owned by the same proprietors.

An employee at one of the gas stations who asked to remain anonymous said a manager and long-time employee at Conoco “decided that they were going to close the store because they didn’t agree with the mask mandate.”

The station closed Thursday, the night before the statewide order requiring masks in public places took effect. A local order issued by Ouray County had already been in effect since July 3 for people to wear masks in indoor spaces and outdoors where safe distancing wasn’t possible. The state’s mask order requires employees to wear masks. It also requires businesses to post signs at entryways informing customers they must wear masks indoors, and businesses “must refuse service to people who are not wearing masks who do not qualify for an age or disability-related exemption.”

Ouray County Public Health Director Tanner Kingery said his department received complaints about employees at the Conoco convenience store not wearing masks, and Ridgway Marshal Shane Schmalz followed up on those complaints. Neither the town nor the county had any hand in closing the business, and no citations or warnings were issued, Kingery said.

Conoco’s Office Manager Karie Stanley said the business closed its doors because of an “employee shortage.” When asked if it was because employees refused to wear masks, she declined to comment.

The Shell gas station across the street has the same ownership but remained open. According to state business records, both convenience stores are registered to owners Patrick Mulvihill and Rob Hunter.

The Plaindealer attempted to contact owner Pat Mulvihill without success. Annette Hunter, Rob’s wife, referred questions to Mulvihill, and said she was unaware the business was closed on Friday.

The closure came after confrontations with customers, according to the employee who asked not to be named.

Customers criticized the Conoco manager and employee and demanded they wear masks, and “in a fit of rage, they quit and walked out and closed the place up,” the employee said. That left the owner without enough staff to keep the store open, the employee said. It was not clear whether those employees still work at the convenience store.

According to the state order, if a business doesn’t enforce the mask rule, they are at risk of losing their business license. Customers who refuse to wear a mask risk prosecution for trespassing. This has put workers on the front lines of enforcing the mask order.

“I’ve been spit on, cussed at, yelled at,” when asking people to wear masks, the employee said.

The rumor that the owner closed the store rather than making employees wear masks isn’t true, the employee said.

After the Conoco reopened, a new sign on the door indicated staff wouldn’t be asking patrons why they weren’t wearing masks if they decided not to wear them.

“Due to HIPAA and the 4th Amendment we cannot legally ask you about your medical condition,” the sign said. “Therefore if we see you without a mask, we will assume you have a medical exemption and we will welcome you inside to support our business.”

The sign is one of many that some businesses have opted to post in response to mask orders, across the country. However, these laws and regulations don’t appear to apply in this situation.

HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, is a regulation restricting personal information medical providers can release about patients. This act wouldn’t apply to individuals asking why someone isn’t wearing a mask, as it applies to healthcare providers and the information they share with other entities, such as insurance companies.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guards against unreasonable search and seizures by the government.

The Centers for Disease Control has acknowledged there are some individuals who should be exempt from face coverings, and the state’s mask order provides for those exemptions. That includes children younger than 2, anyone who has trouble breathing and anyone who is unconscious or incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove their face covering without assistance.

The state has advised businesses to ask customers if they have a face covering, and if the answer is no, they “must state that they can return when they have one, or provide one for them to wear if your business is offering facial coverings to customers.”

Kingery said he hasn’t received many complaints about mask enforcement and most visitors seem to be complying with the orders at this time.

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