Dozens of people packed Moon Palace Books on a recent Saturday for a used book sale. Many brought their own tote bags, filling them with finds. Some wore buttons, some wore babies.

All wore masks.

It's a rare sight these days. The Minneapolis bookstore is among an ever-shrinking number of businesses and nonprofits that still require customers and clients to wear masks, offering free ones for the unprepared. Among the holdouts: a St. Paul bike shop, a south Minneapolis resale shop and a Sunday matinee at Theater Latté Da.

Four years after COVID-19 hit Minnesota, more than two years after the state dropped its mask mandate, and months after most health care systems made masks optional, the folks in charge of these places believe that it's important to protect their employees and customers from a virus that's still circulating.

"We have people on staff and in our families and in our communities who are still at risk," said Asa Diebolt, owner of Asa's Bakery, which offers bagels, bialys and bread for takeout, only. "And there aren't that many spaces left. So I think it is even more important to those people."

When Diebolt moved the bakery into its current home on 34th Avenue S. in early 2022, he bought and installed three big, vintage booths. They sit empty. "I'd love to have a bustling, full dining room someday," he said. "It just hasn't felt like the time to do it, yet."

These places have inspired the devotion of cautious, vulnerable or immunocompromised patrons seeking the rare safer space. COVID Aware Twin Cities offers a map of places with COVID precautions in place. Anonymous fans sometimes send boxes of masks to Asa's as a thank-you, helping defray that cost.

But the businesses have also attracted detractors who complain in person or online. Every once in a while, someone at Moon Palace "absolutely loses it and needs to leave," owner Angela Schwesnedl said.

With signs on its doors and a big, bolded announcement atop its website — "Masks are required for everyone in the store!!!" — the shop has established its expectations, she continued. "So that the people who can't handle it, we're never really crushed. Like, oh well! It's not for you. There are lots of other stores for you."

It's odd to now be an outlier, Schwesnedl said. But it doesn't bother her.

"I opened a bookstore when I did and everybody said that was a terrible idea, too," she said. "Here I am, 12 years later. I guess I'm just not the type to worry about what people think."

Minnesota's infectious disease specialist and White House adviser Michael Osterholm points out that cheap surgical masks — versus fitted, N95 respirators — are largely ineffective at preventing infection. The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy that he heads has shown that if both parties are wearing a surgical mask, it can delay infection by an hour.

If both are wearing properly fitting N95 respirators, infection could take 25 hours.

Being current on vaccinations is the best protection from serious illness, hospitalization and death, Osterholm said. He doesn't believe there's any harm in businesses requiring masks. "But they have to understand that what they're recommending often has limited impact," Osterholm said. "They just assume that a [surgical or cloth] mask is protective. That isn't the case."

Should masks be required in health care settings? Absolutely, he said. Specifically, N95s. "Our hospitals have let us down."

'A group decision'

On a recent Sunday, Leora Feinstein threw aside the dressing room curtain at Cake Plus-Size Resale with a giggle.

"I'm going to get it!" she said, clutching a mauve skirt.

The 24-year-old St. Paul resident appreciates this shop — "I always find something I love when I'm here," she said — and the fact that it requires masks. Feinstein wears her KN95 "pretty much everywhere," including grocery shopping, but is often the only one doing so. During the pandemic's early days, her mother was diagnosed with lymphoma and underwent chemotherapy. Had she caught COVID, "it could have been bad," she said.

Even now that her mom has recovered, "I try to be more cautious and vigilant," Feinstein said. And it's worked: As far as she can tell, she's never had COVID.

Like Feinstein, most of the people who stopped by Cake on this sunny Sunday brought their own masks. But the shop also provided pink surgical ones near the door, below a sign: "All Are Welcome Here."

"I felt such a responsibility to do right by my community and by my team," said owner Cat Polivoda. "We know that fat people don't get the same care at the hospital," she said. So in the pandemic's early days, when news stories warned of ventilator shortages, "I wanted to minimize the opportunity for people to experience inequitable care."

The shop recently did a round of hiring, and Polivoda discussed the mask requirement with prospective employees. "It could be three more months, it could be three more years," she said. "But it'll really be a group decision."

These small businesses often have niche, dedicated customers who seek them out and know the rules. But they risk the dreaded one-star review.

Dan Casebeer had several employees — and several employees' family members — in mind when he kept the mask requirement at Grand Performance, the St. Paul bicycle shop he's owned since 1987. He'd lost friends to COVID and didn't want to be responsible for spreading the virus to employees or customers. Plus, he'd spent time in Italy, where wearing a mask is more common and less political.

"The key is, we care..." Casebeer said. "It's just something we have to do for our own sake and for our customers' sake."

Turns out it might also be good for business. The shop is scheduling five weeks out on repairs, Casebeer said, which means that his 10 employees are busy. Experienced mechanics, who can handle the electronics and hydraulics of bike repair, are hard to find. If one's down, "we lose that day of labor," he said. "If we have two or three down, it compounds it. We never can catch up."

Sure, some of his employees have caught COVID over the past several years, he said. In fact, Casebeer himself had it in late February. But he believes no one has caught it — or spread it — at the shop.

The masked matinee

For a few seasons, seeing a play or a performance meant wearing a mask. As theaters dropped mask requirements for most shows, several kept the requirement for some performances — often, the Sunday matinee.

Last season, Theater Latté Da offered two masked performances a week. Then one a week. Now, starting with "The Color Purple" in March, it will require masks for three performances per production.

"We still see popping up in our reports gratitude from our patrons who do need or want that masked environment," said Managing Director Elisa Spencer-Kaplan, "and from people who say they only attended Latté Da right now because we are still offering that mask requirement."

"On the flip side, some of our most adamant and anxious patrons have changed their views over the last year or so."

The pandemic raised awareness that medically vulnerable people might forever prefer a masked option, Spencer-Kaplan said. She expects that the organization will treat it like its other access initiatives, such as open captioning, offering a few masked performances.

When she took over Yellow Tree Theatre as producing artistic director in 2021, Austene Van figured that "it would be a breeze." Audiences were anxious to return. Artists were ready to come back. But she's faced challenge after challenge.

At one point, she was spending so much on masks and tests that she couldn't afford understudies.

The latest test: Sunday masked performances. Requiring them at her 120-seat theater in Osseo "is costing us." Each Sunday, ticket sales dip.

Van lost her grandmother and her nephew to COVID and wants to protect vulnerable theatergoers from the virus. So much so that she's endured angry calls, letters and confrontations.

"It affects our livelihood when people don't come," she said. "The heaviness is weighing on me. OK, I've gotta keep this business up and running. But people can't die coming to our theater."

Last month, the theater changed its policy. "On Sunday performances masks are strongly suggested and available," its website now says, "but not required."