The crazy times we live in today amid the reopening of the economy in an ongoing pandemic is nowhere more apparent than the issue of wearing a face covering. To say that wearing a mask in public has become politicized is an understatement. To a majority of Americans, the mandate to wear masks in public places is reasonable and prudent. To a very vocal minority of citizens, it’s an invasion of privacy and liberty akin to gun control.
The controversy has created a conundrum for retailers. If a state or county has mandated wearing masks in public, how does the retailer address customers who enter their store without masks? Most retailers have taken the position that their front-line employees should not be put in the position to enforce mandatory mask wearing.
Charlotte-based supermarket chain Harris Teeter issued a statement when the North Carolina governor first mandated wearing masks in public that said the grocer would offer free, disposable medical masks to customers not wearing them but would not force customers to leave the stores if they choose not to wear a face covering.
The statement read: “For those not in compliance, our policy is for a member of store management to approach the shopper to inform them of the order and offer a free, disposable mask. If the individual declines, we must remember and understand that there are many exceptions outlined in the order, and our associates are not authorized nor qualified to ask an individual to present proof that they qualify for an exception.”
Lowe’s Home Improvement stores recently announced they were adopting a “nationwide standard for all customers to wear masks or face coverings when shopping in US stores effective July 20.” However, citing safety concerns, they also said they would not allow their employees to enforce the mask standard.
Many other retailers have taken a similar stance. Some retailers are asking security officers to monitor mask wearing, and customers are taking it upon themselves at times to confront those not wearing masks. The result has been a number of viral videos on social media of shouting matches inside stores as well as physical confrontations.
By mid-July, the situation had escalated to the point that Brian Dodge, president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), issued a letter to the National Governors Association advocating a uniform policy for mask wearing for all states. Here are excerpts from the letter:
“Keeping retailers and other critical segments of the economy open requires everyone to observe common-sense practices around hygiene and social distancing. That includes wearing a mask or face covering while shopping or in a public space….
“Wearing a mask is not about fear, and it certainly should not reflect one’s politics. Wearing a mask is about respecting others and preventing the spread of a deadly disease. This should no longer be up for debate….
“We urge every governor to require consumers who are not incumbered by a medical condition to wear masks when shopping or in a public place.”
The statement goes on to recommend that store employees not be charged with enforcing the policy, and retailers should not be fined for customer noncompliance.
Shortly after RILA’s letter to governors, a number of retailers including Walmart, Kroger, Best Buy, and now Harris Teeter announced mandatory face coverings for all customers visiting their stores, suggesting that individuals who can not or will not wear masks use online or curbside pickup options. It remains to be seen how customers will react to these store rules.
We applaud Brian Dodge and RILA for taking this and other strong stands supporting the industry, retail employees, and consumers throughout this pandemic. Too often companies, associations, and other organizations choose not to take important public positions for fear of alienating stakeholders or customers. For the sake of public health and safely reopening our economy, we should all follow RILA’s lead. Take a stand. Wear a mask.