The Kroger store in Barboursville, WV. Photo by Douglas Soule.

Sam Harshbarger spends most of his work day at the Kroger grocery store in Barboursville on the floor with customers. 

“There’s no way for me to really social distance when you’re completely surrounded by other customers,” said Harshbarger, who oversees shelf stocking, product ordering, and display making.

As COVID-19 cases rise, Harshbarger has been hoping for a mask mandate, an order from the government or his employer that would require masks. Starting last Friday,   Kroger is requiring all workers — vaccinated or not — to wear masks again, he said. But that change stops short of returning to a mask mandate for all customers. Meanwhile, West Virginia COVID-19 intensive care hospitalizations and ventilations have never been higher and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends everyone wear masks indoors in areas of substantial virus transmission. 

Sam Harshbarger, a Kroger employee and a UFCW Local 400 shop steward for the Barboursville Kroger store. Photo by Douglas Soule.

Gov. Jim Justice has balked at reinstituting a mask mandate that would help protect frontline workers like Harshbarger, saying the move would be too divisive and would “fragment” the state. And the governor faces fierce opposition against mandates from some Republican legislators, who are mulling a special session to address the issue.

Still, some of West Virginia’s largest employers have been acting, going beyond a mask mandate to require vaccinations of their workers. And the big employers that don’t will soon face a federal vaccine or frequent testing requirement.

Late last week, President Joe Biden announced the Department of Labor would issue an emergency rule requiring all businesses with more than a 100 employees to require workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or get tested weekly.

“We’re going to protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated co-workers,” Biden said

State government leaders, including West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, said they will fight the measures.

“State AGs, including WV, will not tolerate such blatant & illegal federal overreach from @POTUS,” Morrisey wrote in a tweet Thursday night.

During a press briefing Friday, Gov. Jim Justice called this requirement an “overreach by the federal government beyond belief.”

“It threatens our freedoms and lots of different things about us,” he said. “I am absolutely adamantly against it.”

But a top state business leader’s immediate reaction was nowhere near as negative about the Biden plan.

Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said on Friday morning that he had not yet heard any criticism from member businesses. 

“We have within our membership companies that want to stay open and want to be able to operate and very much want us to avoid another COVID-related shutdown,” he said.

Roberts cautioned that his organization needs more time to review the Biden plan before taking a formal position.

‘Not much of an inconvenience’

It was July 6, 2020 — almost four months into the pandemic. There were 110 new COVID-19 cases, contributing to an 83 daily case average for that week.

Justice signed an executive order — effective the next day — requiring all West Virginians 9 and older to wear a face covering at all indoor public places where social distancing couldn’t be maintained, with a couple of medical exemptions.

“I know it’s an inconvenience, but it’s not going to be much of an inconvenience,” the governor said. 

That mask mandate stood for nearly a year, until Justice lifted it on June 20, a day that saw only 39 new cases. Cases at the time were lower than they’d been since the beginning of the pandemic, and, even though the state had one of the worst vaccination rates in the country, vaccination access was widely available. 

Since then, things have gotten far worse. Last week, 38 West Virginians died from COVID-19 between Wednesday and Friday.

“In [not making another mask mandate], I’m trying with all in me to keep us together,” Justice said during a Wednesday press briefing. “Because I know the very second we start to fragment and we start to run in all kinds of different directions, we’ll get worse.”

As of last week, only about 52% of eligible West Virginians (12 or older) were vaccinated against the coronavirus. The Delta variant, which is more than twice as contagious as previous variants and which current research indicates may cause more serious symptoms, has a firm grip on the state. 

Without a statewide mandate, some of West Virginia’s largest employers — all health companies — have acted on their own to protect their workers. 

WVU Medicine, the state’s largest private employer, not only requires those older than 2 entering its hospitals and clinics to wear face coverings, but it has mandated that all employees be fully vaccinated by the end of October. 

The Charleston Area Medical Group told its employees that, after Oct. 15, they wouldn’t be scheduled for work until they received the necessary vaccination doses. Mountain Health Network also has a vaccine requirement for workers. So does Mon Health.

But among other large employers, neither masks for non-employees or vaccines for employees are required at the moment, though they will all fall under Biden’s emergency rule requiring vaccination or regular testing. While West Virginia Kroger stores continue to request that customers wear masks, Harshbarger said that hasn’t been a requirement since Justice lifted the mandate. 

Walmart and Lowe’s stores in the state also don’t have a customer mask requirement. 

At Kroger, where workers are represented by a union, UFCW Local 400 spokesman Jonathan Williams said the union supports a mask mandate for all, as well as any program that increases vaccinations to protect customers and coworkers

“The frustrating thing for us is when companies say we can’t enforce the mask mandate for customers, but you can’t walk into a grocery store with your shirt off without getting kicked out. Why should it be different with a mask?”

Williams said that as of Sept. 3, that there had been 370 COVID cases among employees at the 33 West Virginia Kroger stores where his union represents workers, with a notable surge in the prior week. 

He said the union is not opposed to vaccine mandates as long as they offer paid sick leave for those experiencing side effects from the shots and include exemptions for workers who are unable to get vaccinated. 

James Menees, a Kroger spokesman, said the company follows CDC guidance and strongly encourages customers, even those vaccinated, to wear masks, and that the health and safety of everyone remains a top priority. 

“We’re encouraging our associates and our customers to be vaccinated as well,” he said

Justice, though, has said he doesn’t approve of requiring vaccinations for state employees, and state workers will not be covered under Biden’s emergency rule. A spokesman for the governor did not respond to emailed questions.

Small businesses and mask mandates  

For some small businesses, the lack of a renewed mask mandate presents new challenges to dealing with customers amid the pandemic’s resurgence.

Samuel Bonasso, owner of Quantum Bean Coffee in Morgantown, requires all his customers to wear masks.  Early in the pandemic, the coffee shop removed its tables, went to takeout only and required masks. 

The only thing that’s changed since was a short period of time when masks weren’t required. 

“Vaccination numbers were up, case numbers were down, we let our mask rule fall to recommended and all the way down to personal preference,” he said. 

But cases went up, and West Virginia maintained its low vaccination rate

And Quantum Bean Coffee changed too, requiring masks again. 

“We ask you to wear a mask so we can keep our doors open,” Bonasso said. 

He said a mandate from the state would help small businesses. 

“COVID is becoming a very opinionated thing at this point. Like it or love it or not, that’s the way it is,” he said. “And a business owner saying, ‘This is our rule’ puts them right in the middle of that opinion, back and forth with customers, which is just a tough place to operate a business. And no one has been trained in that. There’s just nothing to prepare you for that.”

Todd Coyle, who runs Charles Town’s Bushel & Peck, a small nonprofit grocery store with local and regional goods, said it’s harder for small businesses to require and enforce mask policies than a much larger store. 

“Everything’s tougher when you’re small,” he said. 

Only in July did Bushel & Peck allow customers in its stores for the first time since the pandemic began. It had sold its  goods through curbside pick up until then. When it opened its door, it did so with the request that all customers wear masks, and Coyle said most customers do so.

The effect of a customer refusing to support his business because of a mask requirement — or of a customer leaving the store because another is making a scene about a requirement — is felt more severely by a small business. And his store, which only has two workers beyond himself, doesn’t have a huge corporation over it to help out, Coyle said. 

“An unfortunate situation can potentially really hurt — can ruin your day,” he said.

Douglas Soule is a Report for America corps member who covers business and economic development. A Bridgeport native, he worked as an intern at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. He has served as editor-in-chief...