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Lack of face masks fueling frustrations for struggling Valpo businesses
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Lack of face masks fueling frustrations for struggling Valpo businesses

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VALPARAISO — Those failing to comply with the governor's executive order to wear face masks in public are contributing to the hardships faced by local businesses already in jeopardy by the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, the mayor and other city officials were told Wednesday morning.

Geoff Blanco, owner of Rigg's Outdoor Power Equipment, said during a city-sponsored Zoom call that he has had to hire an attorney to respond to a civil complaint filed against him by someone with an undisclosed medical condition, who felt discriminated against for being called on to wear a mask at the business.

Others said they are facing hostility from those refusing to wear masks. Concern was voiced about Valparaiso attracting the image of a "COVID city."

"We might not make it, that's the reality," one business owner said about the cumulative impact of the pandemic. "We're weeks away from closing the door."

Valparaiso Mayor Matt Murphy, who was called on for financial assistance and help in promoting the city as a safe destination for customers, said research has shown that the bulk of the current spread of the coronavirus is coming not from schools and businesses, but from private and family gatherings where people feel a false sense of safety and are letting their guard down.

In an attempt to support local restaurants and other businesses, he said the city has printed door signs "that reinforce the city's mask mandate, including a Porter County Health Department phone number to call with questions or concerns."

When asked by one business owner about the apparent discrepancies in the enforcement of the mask mandate, Valparaiso city attorney and Economic Development Director Patrick Lyp said enforcement is up to the Porter County Health Department.

Local police can be called on for assistance, though he said it is uncertain if the executive order is a law or recommendation. And while acknowledging that it is easy for him to say, business owners are operating on private property and can enforce their own rules, he said.

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One restaurant representative shared that after a customer mistreated a young hostess, she did not hesitate confronting the individual. Another said he has face masks available at the hostess stand.

"I give them out for free," he said.

During the restaurant portion of the two Zoom calls, concern was voiced about a significant drop in business since Sunday that was likened to a "ghost town." Fears were voiced about the likelihood of having to lay off employees.

When asked about the potential for financial assistance from the county or city, Lyp said Valparaiso is looking at a program underway in Michigan City. But he and other city officials were unable to offer any certain hope that government assistance would be forthcoming.

Murphy plans to continue the conversation on COVID with the public at 4 p.m. Monday with a Facebook live event on the Valparaiso Now page.

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Porter/LaPorte County Courts and Social Justice Reporter

Bob is a 23-year veteran of The Times. He covers county government and courts in Porter County, federal courts, police news and regional issues. He also created the Vegan in the Region blog, is an Indiana University grad and lifelong region resident.

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