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Shops, customers revel in normalcy

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Jeanne Lindle, left, and Pamela Miller, are greeted by Jennifer Huotari at Big Boy in Alpena on Monday. Businesses in Michigan were freed of mask mandates and occupancy limits on Tuesday after battling through more than a year of coronavirus restrictions.

ALPENA — A lot of smiling faces.

That is what some employees in Northeastern Michigan noticed on Tuesday, as people were able to shed their masks and stand a little closer to one another while out on the town because Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration lifted most COVID-19-related restrictions. With vaccination rates increasing and infections and deaths decreasing, Whitmer lifted the state’s mask mandate and lifted occupancy limits that forced businesses to alter operations during the ongoing pandemic.

As regulations changed during the pandemic, businesses often scrambled to meet the latest policy. On Tuesday, they happily turned the page and returned to more ordinary practices.

Perhaps the most heavily regulated businesses during the height of COVID-19 were restaurants and taverns, which had to stop indoor dining for months and faced strict capacity limits and curfews even when customers returned to the tables.

Ludlow Enterprise owner Jane Ludlow-Towne, whose company owns the Mancino’s Pizza and Grinders and Big Boy restaurants in Alpena, said the restrictions on indoor dining impacted both businesses, but especially Big Boy, which closed for months. Mancino’s pushed forward with curbside pickup and delivery options, but she said an indoor dining experience and service is important to many customers.

“We’re looking forward to being back at full capacity and excited to bring all of the tables back in, that is for sure,” Ludlow-Towne said Tuesday. “Throughout this, customers have been very understanding, considering they were forced to sit in their cars or outside.”

The practice of sterilizing and deep-cleaning the restaurants will continue, she said, and, although customers and staff aren’t required to wear masks any longer, they can if they choose.

LeFave Pharmacy owners plan to implement similar policies and practices. On Tuesday, the staff busily filled prescriptions without wearing masks, and maskless customers patiently waited for them.

Pharmacist Jaime Cadarette said the store’s primary goal remains the same: getting as many people vaccinated as possible and making sure all employees and customers feel comfortable in the store.

Cadarette said barriers to protect employees and customers will remain in place, as will the social-distancing markers on the floor that showed what the recommended six feet between customers looks like, because many of the pharmacy’s customers are elderly or have compromised health. A mandatory mask mandate is not in the cards, but both staff and customers are encouraged to wear one.

Cadarette said seeing people without face coverings is refreshing.

“We are so excited to see smiling faces again,” she said. “We have some employees that are still wearing them and we’ll continue to feel customers out. If they are wearing a mask, and prefer we did, then we’ll definitely put one on.”

Cadarette said the store will continue to offer curbside pickup and drive-thru services, both of which have proven popular. She said those options will remain in place because of the convenience it offers people who may still be a little nervous going into a store.

Some small stores struggled with the occupancy limits, especially during the holiday season. They were able to come up with creative ideas to assist customers, and create more space to accommodate them, but having the restriction lifted takes one less burden off of store employees and customers, proprietors said.

North Country Candy and Gifts Manager Grace Reimer said the store will continue to offer the services it does now, including online ordering, curbside and in-store pick-up, and use of the dining area.

“It got pretty nuts during the Christmas rush,” she said. “People did their best to social distance, but it was hard.”

Reimer said employees are not forced to wear masks any longer, but should have one on them, should a customer request they put it on. She said hand sanitation stations will remain, as will the thorough cleaning.

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