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The Portager

Covid-19

Some Kent businesses say no to masks: ‘weakens the immune system’

The Portager is publishing Covid-19 inspection reports from the Kent Health Department

Last month, Kent’s chief sanitarian, Justin Smith, walked into Frazier’s Barber Shop on East Main Street to look into a complaint that the barber was not wearing a mask, despite orders from the state.

Inside was the barber and a customer, neither wearing a mask, according to a Kent Health Department report obtained by The Portager through a public records request. (We are making the inspection reports and complaint log available here.) The barber said he “will not be wearing a mask” and that “he doesn’t like breathing in his own CO2.”

“Barber became pushy and asked [the] health inspector to leave and locked the door,” the report reads.

This incident was just one of several examples of Kent businesses flouting state public health guidance designed to reduce the spread of Covid-19, which has already killed 59 residents of Portage County. The seven-day average of new cases has more than doubled over the last two weeks, according to a New York Times analysis.

The Kent Health Department said most establishments are taking the pandemic seriously. Even some businesses that are not in compliance with health safety guidelines have made efforts to fix their protocols after conversations with health inspectors.

But some establishments, including Frazier’s Barber Shop and the American Legion post in Kent, have taken a hard-line position against masks and social distancing, rejecting the warnings of epidemiologists who say masks are a simple way to greatly reduce transmission.

“It was an individual who just clearly believed that this pandemic is a hoax,” said Kent City Health Commissioner Joan Seidel, referring to the barber at Frazier’s. “When you’re basically told, ‘the door is over there, you can leave,’ it ends the conversation.”

Barbershops are required to maintain social distancing between customers’ seats, and employees must wear masks unless they claim, in writing, one of several exemptions.

The owner of Frazier’s did not reply to requests for comment.

However, we did speak with Kim St. Hilaire, manager at the American Legion Post 496, where a sign at the door says masks are optional but neither staff nor patrons wear them.

“On a personal note, I don’t wear a mask anywhere I go,” she said. “I believe that when you cover your mouth and your nose and you’re constantly breathing your own bad breath, that’s not good for you either. I think it also weakens the immune system.”

Wearing a mask does not weaken the immune system.

She said some of the clientele, mostly older veterans, don’t hear very well and rely on lip reading. And besides, she added, how can you eat and drink with a mask on?

“I make the employees take their temperature when they come to work,” she said. “I’ve also made sure there are ample sanitizer bottles that sit around the bar. The bartenders have to use it, and they wash their hands often anyhow.”

Seidel said she urged St. Hilaire to follow all the health guidelines. She offered to provide transparent lip reading masks and explained that the American Legion serves an older population, more vulnerable to the worst effects of coronavirus, who “need to be protected after they protected our country and our freedom.” St. Hilaire said she would think about it, Seidel said.

“Some businesses are struggling,” Seidel said. “I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt that nobody wants their patrons to get ill. I’m going on the premise that people want to keep their patrons and their staff healthy.”

After first taking a conversational, informal approach, the Kent Health Department has begun to document its inspections in the form of reports. They made a first round of site visits in late June. A second round of inspections is underway.

After three inspections during which an establishment is not in compliance, the health department will send its findings to the state, which enforces Covid-19 regulations through the investigative unit responsible for liquor law enforcement.

“We’re seeing some compliance now,” Seidel said. “I’m hoping that will be enough, to just know that there’s something in writing.”

Among the establishments that have improved their practices are The Pub and Barflyy. After the first visit, The Pub made a “180-degree turn,” Seidel said. The ownership is engaged and trying to improve. Similarly, the ownership of Barflyy has made corrections to come into compliance.

Carter Eugene Adams contributed reporting.

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We’re the only locally owned news source covering Portage County, Ohio. Our mission is to help our community thrive.

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