The masks came off almost immediately, even faster than Alexis De Los Santos had feared.
“It was like, wow, that escalated quickly,” said De Los Santos, 19, who works at the Texas grocery chain H-E-B, where customers will be “strongly encouraged” but no longer required to wear masks when the state mandate lifts Wednesday. “I’ve had family members die from covid, so it personally offends me when people don’t wear their masks. But I bite my tongue and keep working.”
After nearly a year on the front lines of the pandemic, retail and restaurant workers in Texas and Mississippi — where governors said this week that they would ease a number of coronavirus-related restrictions, including mask requirements — say they feel especially vulnerable now. They’ve worked through shutdowns and watched colleagues fall ill and die of the virus.
The stakes, they say, feel even higher now. They’re not yet eligible for the vaccine even though they’re surrounded by hundreds, sometimes thousands, of customers a day. In interviews with more than a dozen workers, many said they’ve considered quitting.
“It’s like pulling the rug out from under essential workers — the very people who need our unambiguous support and protection — just as we’re turning a corner,” said David Abrams, professor of social and behavioral science at New York University’s School of Global Public Health. “It puts people who are already in a precarious position in a terrible bind.”
At least 175 grocery workers have died of covid-19, and thousands more have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to labor unions, advocacy groups and media reports, though tracking is spotty and incomplete. And though they were celebrated as “heroes” at the beginning of the pandemic, retail workers have largely been left off vaccine priority lists and lag behind other essential workers in hourly pay, health benefits and sick leave.
In Corpus Christi, De Los Santos says H-E-B has been proactive about placing protective barriers at cash registers and allowing workers ample time off if they feel sick. Her hourly pay has gone from $10 to $14 during the pandemic. But at the same time, she worries about taking the virus home to her boyfriend’s mother and grandmother.
“There are customers who understand the risks, but then there are others who hand me cash from their bra or lick their fingers before giving me their money,” she said. “Every minute on this job, I’m wondering how to stay safe.”
H-E-B did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Retail industry groups have been outspoken about the need for masks and other safety protocols, saying that doing away with those measures too soon could jeopardize worker health, as well as the safety of pharmacies and grocery stores that increasingly serve as vaccination centers.
National chains such as Target, Kroger and CVS have said they will keep requiring masks in all U.S. stores, though employees say they fear those requirements will be difficult to enforce without backing from state and local officials.
“It freaks me out being around people, even if they’ve got their masks on,” said Cassandra Walker, 35, who works in the deli of a local grocery store in Columbus, Miss., where the lunchtime crowd often numbers in the dozens. “I’m facing the public all day, just terrified of getting sick. And now it’s on a whole other level. How can I go home and hold my kids knowing I could give them the virus?”
Walker recently had to quarantine and get tested for the virus after a colleague got sick. Another co-worker, with diabetes, died earlier this year of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
And though she wears a mask on the job, Walker and other workers in Mississippi and Texas said they feel even more fearful as customers — and managers — have become particularly lax about mask-wearing and enforcement in recent weeks.
“It was fantastic how quickly we adapted to the pandemic, but then it was a very quick down-flight to ‘I hate wearing this mask’ and ‘I don’t want to sanitize anything,’ ” said a waitress at an upscale steakhouse near Dallas who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she fears losing her job.
At least once a week, she says, customers ask her to pull down her mask so they can hear her better. Until now, she’s told them she’ll get in trouble if she does. “But now it’s not like I can say that anymore,” she said. “I’ll have to come up with a new reason — or find a different job.”
She’s started looking for work she can do from home and says her colleagues are mostly relieved to not have to wear masks anymore. Even when face coverings were required, she said some employees wore sheer masks, or covers studded with holes in protest of the rules.
“I’ve been sitting at home, biting my nails for days,” she said, adding that two colleagues recently tested positive for the virus. “I’m in the restaurant industry because I love taking care of people, and it feels so disrespectful to completely ignore the health of myself and my co-workers.”
At a Walmart in Port Arthur, Tex., “basically no customers” have worn face coverings following Abbott’s announcement, according to Emily Francois, who has been working at the store for 14 years. Employees are required to wear masks, but the company has done little to ensure that shoppers adhere to such requirements, she said.
“It’s hard — I’m scared just coming to work,” said Francois, 38. “We’re putting our lives on the line more and more.”
Walmart did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
During the pandemic, retail employees have frequently been pulled into the front lines of a growing culture war between shoppers who are willing to wear masks and those who aren’t. This week’s rollback of mask mandates, experts say, leaves already-vulnerable workers with even less control over their surroundings.
“The mask debate has been framed as a question of individual choice and individual responsibility,” said Wendy E. Parmet, director of the Center for Health Policy and Law at Northeastern University. “But when people choose not to wear a mask, they’re not only taking on risk for themselves, they’re also passing that risk onto others who don’t have the choice to walk away or keep their distance.”
Neither Texas nor Mississippi is giving vaccine priority to grocery or retail workers, which labor unions say is essential to stop the spread of the virus. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union — which represents 1.3 million U.S. grocery, meat packing and food processing employees — says essential workers are 55 percent more likely to catch the coronavirus than nonessential workers.
On Thursday, Tess Santana showed up to work at a Walmart store in Arlington, Tex., to find that most customers — at least 30 out of 35 — weren’t wearing masks. She panicked and said she asked to work in the backroom for the duration of her shift.
“More and more people come in without any face coverings and completely ignore social distancing,” said Santana, 18, who fulfills online grocery orders. “It makes my job even more stressful and almost feels dehumanizing.”
Leah Kendall works at a department store near Dallas and says she’s become accustomed to customers who don’t wear masks or keep them pulled under their nose. When a shopper gets too close, the 61-year-old instinctively pulls her KN95 mask tight against her face and asks them to step back.
But she fears this week was a turning point. District managers have told employees they can no longer enforce mask requirements. Kendall plans to keep wearing a mask and taking other precautions. And even though she got the first of two Moderna shots last weekend, she said she worries about transmitting the virus to her father, an 85-year-old cancer survivor.
“It’s so hard to get some of these customers to put on their masks and keep them over their nose,” she said. “I really resent the utter contempt they show for my safety and my family’s safety."