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Retail workers are being pulled into the latest culture war: Getting customers to wear masks

Mixed messaging and politicization have turned a public health safeguard into the latest challenge for low-wage workers

Emma Asch wipes the counter after a transaction in May at the American Eagle/Aerie store at Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio. (Andrew Spear for The Washington Post)

It’s been nearly a week since the city of Mobile, Ala., began requiring masks in public. But inside the discount store where Kae Palmer works, not much has changed.

Most shoppers still come in without face coverings. Workers are quick to remove masks when they’re not on the sales floor. Palmer, who brings her own masks from home, worries about her health but doesn’t feel like there’s much she can do about it. Corporate guidance, she says, has been, “Just serve the customer and don’t talk about their lack of a mask.”

Like millions of other retail and service workers, she has been pulled into the front lines of a growing culture war between those who are willing to wear masks and those who aren’t. Mixed messaging and politicization have turned a public health safeguard into a lightning-rod issue. As a result, workers have been berated, even assaulted, by aggressive anti-maskers.

“State and local governments have taken different approaches, but they all have one thing in common: They leave business owners and employees to change peoples’ behavior at a time when tempers are already running high,” said Lindsay Wiley, director of the Health Law and Policy Program at American University’s Washington College of Law. “Retail workers — who are already at great risk because they’re being exposed to people all day — have now also been put in the position of asking people to mask up.”

As the pandemic intensifies, more states and cities are mandating face coverings in public to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which originally downplayed the importance of masks, now calls them “a critical preventive measure” and says they should be worn in public. Economists, meanwhile, say nationwide mask requirements could prevent a return to widespread shutdowns and further economic turmoil. But there are no federal rules mandating masks, and retail workers say what little enforcement or oversight there is often falls to them.

The battle over masks in a pandemic: An all-American story

When states first began lifting coronavirus lockdown measures in the summer, tensions around face masks had been mounting since the CDC first recommended them. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

Some workers say they have been told they cannot refuse service to maskless customers, even if local laws require it. Others feel they’ve been put in the awkward and sometimes dangerous position of confronting shoppers who refuse to wear the coverings. In recent weeks, retail workers have been punched in the face, suffered broken limbs and, in the case of a security guard at a Family Dollar store in Michigan, killed while trying to enforce mask requirements.

At least 20 states and the District now mandate face coverings in some capacity. The surge of coronavirus cases in recent weeks has led to a new round of mask requirements, with states like Kansas, Oregon and Texas mandating them, and others like Washington state warning retailers and restaurants that they could lose their business licenses for serving customers without masks.

“People see it as this big political message when it’s really just about public health,” said Shilo Barrett, 26, a shift supervisor at a Starbucks in Los Angeles, where about 10 percent of shoppers come in without masks despite local and state mandates. “It’s already unfair that we have to work right now because we have bills to pay, and now you’re going to put us in a compromising situation because you don’t want to wear a mask for 5 minutes? That’s not cool.”

National mask mandate could save 5 percent of GDP, economists say

Barrett said customers often become angry or belligerent when she tells them they need to wear a mask inside the store. Some tell her covid-19 is overblown, or roll their eyes and storm out.

In other parts of the country, Starbucks workers say they have been told by managers to stop posting signs about mask requirements and avoid approaching customers who aren’t wearing mandated face coverings.

Anthony Pasqualone, who works at a Starbucks in Bergen County, N.J., said customers typically ignore him when he tells them masks are required. A few days ago, he says, a shopper started screaming about the company’s mask requirement and, when informed that the bathrooms were closed because of the pandemic, proceeded to unzip his pants and urinate in front of the store.

“We have signs outside that say you need a mask, but it seems like a lot of [people] just don’t care,” he said.

Starbucks declined to discuss the issue, noting that its position is outlined on its website. Customers are asked to wear masks where required by local authorities, it said, and employees “have the right and responsibility to refuse service to customers who are not wearing facial coverings where mandated by law.”

The lack of federal guidance has added to the confusion, retailers and legal experts say. Major chains and service workers are trying to navigate a patchwork of rules with few enforcement mechanisms in place. Some, like Target, are placing security guards at the door in areas where masks are legally required. Others, like the Home Depot and Kroger, have posted signs at entrances. Only a handful of national retailers, including Costco and Apple, have blanket policies requiring masks at all of their stores.

“The challenge is that we’re trying to change peoples’ behaviors and habits very rapidly,” said Wiley, the law professor. “If you think about seat belts or smoking at bars and restaurants, it took years — decades, even — to change people’s thinking.”

Industry groups have been vocal about the challenges and risks of navigating new mask requirements. The Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents companies like Walmart, Target and Best Buy, this week called on the nation’s governors to issue “concise statewide orders” requiring masks in public. Front-line workers, it said, have been faced with mounting hostility and violence from customers who view masks as a violation of their civil liberties.

“Wearing a mask is about respecting others and preventing the spread of a deadly disease,” Brian Dodge, the group’s president, wrote in a letter to the National Governors Association. “This should no longer be up for debate.”

Major retailers to states: Mandate face masks now

It isn’t clear exactly how many front-line workers have been caught in the fray, but recent incidents that have bubbled up on social media show just how fraught the situation has become for employees and others who confront shoppers without masks. A video on Twitter this week showed a man at a Florida Costco threatening a customer who asked him to adhere to the company’s mask requirements. “I feel threatened,” he shouted, along with a string of expletives. The man’s employer later tweeted that he had been fired. It was just the latest of such incidents — including at Trader Joe’s and Starbucks — to go viral in recent weeks.

“Unfortunately it’s up to employees to ask customers to wear their masks properly, which becomes exhausting, especially when you have to do it all day long,” said Julia, a Whole Foods Market employee in California who asked to be identified only by her first name because she fears retribution. “Sometimes you’ll ask and they will pull it up and then just pull it down again.” (Whole Foods is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)

Rachel Malish, a Whole Foods spokeswoman, said the company follows local ordinances and provides face masks for customers at store entrances. In places where masks are required, an employee is stationed at the entrance to make sure customers have face coverings.

Some shoppers say spotty enforcement makes them feel unsafe. Aileen McNally was surprised to encounter unmasked customers during a recent trip to the hardware store in Ulster County, N.Y., where she lives. Masks have been mandatory in the state since mid-April, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) signed an executive order requiring them in public spaces.

McNally, 55, said she confronted the two shoppers, who shouted expletives at her and told her to mind her own business. Nearby employees, she said, didn’t step in, and the store manager told her “he can’t make any customers wear masks.”

“Home Depot’s lack of responsibility to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus is very troubling,” she said, adding that she doesn’t plan to shop at the chain anymore. “They’re basically telling their masked customers: ‘We don’t care about you.’ ”

Margaret Smith, a spokeswoman for Home Depot, said the company has posted signs and makes frequent announcements over the loud speaker asking customers to wear masks in stores where local mandates require them. But, she said, the company is not asking “stores to police local mandates, because it can be dangerous to put our associates in that position.”

On Facebook, she denounced a Starbucks worker who asked her to wear a mask. It backfired: He received over $32,000 in tips.

Back in Alabama, the discount store where Kae Palmer works began requiring employees to wear masks in mid-June, though she says workers often remove them in stockrooms, break areas and management offices. Just about everybody — supervisors, employees, shoppers — complains about having to wear them, she said, and there is very little enforcement of the rules.

“It gives the impression that corporate doesn’t actually care about employees and is doing the bare minimum to protect themselves from being sued,” said Palmer, 22, who brings her own masks to work because the store provides only one disposable mask per week. “As one of only three employees that wore a mask before they were mandatory, the actions tell me that management don’t take the situation seriously.”

She is careful, she said, not to call out shoppers without masks. Even then, it’s not always possible to avoid confrontation: Some customers, she said, give her a hard time for wearing a mask.

“I don’t really want someone to pick a fight with me over a mask,” she said.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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