What’s next for mask mandates?

Photo: @beachbumledford via Twenty20
Feb 25, 2021
Tom Ryan

Mask compliance continues to frustrate retailers nearly one year into the pandemic and the vaccine rollout is creating more turbulence on selling floors.

An article in The Wall Street Journal this past weekend chronicled the latest phase of mask conflicts:

  • Store managers and staff continue to face confrontations by individual customers and sometimes coordinated groups of anti-maskers. Incidents range from foul language to lawsuit threats and violence;
  • As COVID-19 cases decline and vaccines roll out, governors in Iowa, Montana and North Dakota have dropped statewide mask mandates, raising tensions with some city leaders who are keeping their own restrictions in place to fight new strains of the coronavirus as well as with stores that are trying to maintain their mask policies;
  • With vaccines out of reach to most of the public, health experts say working retail continues to carry a high risk of infection. As of Feb. 17, Colorado had active investigations into outbreaks tied to staff at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, King Soopers and other stores. Almost 180 workers at a Costco store near Yakima, WA were infected between the middle of December and early January;
  • Pandemic-fatigued shoppers aren’t as vigilant about wearing masks or wearing them properly, and worn down store staff aren’t as committed to policing requirements.

Other states and cities are likewise moving to ease restrictions on dining and other activities. Yet on Sunday on CNN, Dr. Anthony Fauci said it’s “possible” Americans will need to wear masks in 2022 even as “a significant degree of normality” may arrive by the end of this year.

Among recent retail incidents:

  • On Feb. 18, UPS severed its relationship with a franchisor in Newport, VT because the location refused to comply with the company’s uniform policy on wearing masks;
  • On Valentine’s Day, an anti-mask group stormed a Trader Joe’s in Santa Cruz, ignored calls to leave, and posted a video of the incident on YouTube;
  • On Feb. 6 at Woodman’s Food Market in Kenosha, WI, a male shopper punched a security staff member who reminded him of the store’s mask requirement.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What new challenges does the rollout of vaccines and easing of restrictions around dining and other activities place on mask mandates at stores? How should stores address mask fatigue by shoppers as well as store staff?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"It’s simple – the pandemic is NOT over yet."
"Rules have one other pesky quality, the time will inevitably come when you want to make an exception, but you can’t. Not if you want to have a rule (or law)."
"I’m a broken record on this — let the scientists and medical professionals determine the protocols for keeping people safe."

Join the Discussion!

15 Comments on "What’s next for mask mandates?"

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Neil Saunders

I think this is clear. Despite some light at the end of the tunnel, we’re still in a health crisis and if people want to visit physical stores they need to respect the rules retailers put in place. It’s not pleasant to wear a mask, but it’s hardly difficult.

I have great sympathy for staff at the sharp end. Retailers need to put in place clear policies for dealing with those violating policies, and have proper security staff and procedures for dealing with issues.

Longer term, once the crisis is over, legal mandates for masks must go. There is no justification for the state to dictate such things in normal times. However some people and retailers may still voluntarily opt for masks, which is their right.

Shep Hyken

One goal of every retailer should be to make a customer feel safe. If that includes a mandatory mask rule, then that is very appropriate. A customer who doesn’t want to wear a mask can shop elsewhere or agree to comply for that interaction. The retailer must enforce employee participation at the highest level. No room for leniency. Managers and leaders must be role models. For a mandatory mask policy to work, employees must be told there is no room for any lack of compliance. While some customers and employees may not believe the mask is effective, the vast majority do. And that majority are willing to comply. Keep customers and employees safe.

Gene Detroyer

We have heard of the U.K., South African and Brazil variants. Now we have a new California variant. How many more variants will there be? The experts say this is the way the viruses work. There are more variants out there than we have already found.

Simply put, until there are boosters for the variants, keep the masks on.

Suresh Chaganti

Masks have become a political football. The genie is out of the bottle. There is no putting it back. It is best to leave it to the local level to mandate. Federal and state can provide guidance, but leave it to the county level or city level to decide for themselves. At least at that level, the citizens feel their voice is represented.

Steve Montgomery

There is no question that as vaccination become more available and restrictions ease it will make it even more difficult to enforce mask mandates. Those that got vaccinated may say hey I’m protected and therefore don’t have to wear a mask.

The issue for retailers is that their staff and other customers don’t know the person has been vaccinated. Among customers this can causes a number of reactions including their asking, if they don’t have to wear a mask why do I? They may confront that person which never ends well or perhaps they leave the store to get away from what they believe is an unsafe environment. At a minimum they will hold the retailer responsible for not enforcing a mask mandate. This may or may not result in them looking for an alternative place to shop.

Ricardo Belmar
It’s simple – the pandemic is NOT over yet. We may see a light at the end of the tunnel now with a third vaccine being approved, but the fact is until the majority of the population is vaccinated, masks and social distancing are the best weapons available to all of us to fight the spread of the virus. Retailers that want to do their part in this battle and issue mask mandates have to enforce them. While there will always be those who resist, retailers need their employees to set the example and ask customers that refuse to comply to shop elsewhere so that they can create a safe environment for their customers. As capacity limits are lifted across the country, and dining in restaurants is further opened, this will become even more important to stop the spread with new variants of the virus popping up. We have made it this far through the pandemic because we followed these policies. If it feels like the situation is improving, that’s not a reason to relax… Read more »
Mel Kleiman

Mask wearing is an option that everyone should have. That said, mandating that your employees must wear a mask for their own good and the good of the customer should not be optional. Customers have an option to wear a mask or not to wear them but stores should also have the option to not have to serve customers who do not want to comply and the government has to ensure that companies have the right to ask customers to leave if they do not want to comply.

Richard Hernandez

So here is what I have heard, at least in the state I live in – “if I get the two shots (the vaccine) and I am 95 percent protected, why should I wear a mask?” That becomes a more slippery slope as more states are beginning to vaccinate the rest of the general public after the initial groups were completed. I see this getting to be more of an issue as more of the public gets vaccinated.

DeAnn Campbell

I am fascinated by the number of people who now use retail stores as a vehicle for expressing personal politics. It’s no longer enough to simply take their business elsewhere, people are increasingly using stores to voice their preferences in public. I think it is a strong indicator of the important role that retail plays in the success and structure of a community. Consider the leading role retail is playing in moving initiatives like equal opportunity and sustainability forward — much faster than any government legislation could. My heart goes out to store workers who must endure this nonsense. If you don’t want to wear a mask, that’s up to you, just stay home and order online. Same goes for wearing pants in public. There are just some things we do to be kind to our fellow citizens.

Ben Ball
All rules (or laws) have one uniformly irritating quality — they have to be enforced to be effective. If not enforced consistently — every time and for everybody — they quickly become a guideline, suggestion or request and are best phrased as such to begin with. Retailers have the right to make and enforce rules in their private establishments, whether it is “No shirt, no shoes, no masks, no service” or any other rule that is applied indiscriminately to all shoppers. Whether or not they choose to do so on their own authority is a business decision. But if they choose to make such a decision, they owe it to their staff to protect them from undesirable consequences unless the staff agrees that enforcing rules is part of their job. Short of that, the retailer needs to either be the enforcer or hire someone for the job. Rules have one other pesky quality, the time will inevitably come when you want to make an exception, but you can’t. Not if you want to have a… Read more »
Mohamed Amer

Mask fatigue or new habits? Let medical experts lead the way; Some may choose to wear masks when none are mandated. That is their choice and it causes no harm to others. Local conditions on the state of COVID-19 will dictate the return to pre-pandemic normality. Those that have lost family or friends have experienced deep losses and have realized the preciousness of life. Post-pandemic, I expect people will desire cleaner and more hygienic public spaces and will have a greater awareness of ways to limit the spread of contagious diseases.

Harley Feldman

While mask mandates seem to work to prevent the spread of COVID-19, vaccinations are being given to prevent the patient from getting the virus. As more and more people get vaccinated, there will be more of a tendency to not want to wear a mask since the person is now immune from the virus. This will become more and more a challenge to retailers and their staffs as their vaccinated customers believe they are immune and do not require masks. The real difficulty will be to define the end date for the mask mandate relieving retailers of this burden. I can see a time when institutions and events will require their customers to produce vaccination certificates for entry.

Mask fatigue can only be addressed with a carrot and a stick approach, that is making sure that store staff and customers all understand it is to the safety benefit of both that masks are being worn.

Gary Sankary

I’m a broken record on this — let the scientists and medical professionals determine the protocols for keeping people safe. Period. Retailers put mask requirements in place before many jurisdictions required them. If we have to keep them in place after these same jurisdictions remove them, good on us for trying to keep customers safe.

1 month 26 days ago
Once local cities and states no longer have mask mandates in place, it will be very difficult for retailers to effectively continue their mask mandates. If after that point the retailer wants to continue to require masks and provide masks to customers that is certainly up to the retailer to do so. Mask compliance is already very low in a number of rural areas even with mandates and retailer policies. I can go into rural northern California and find Home Depot, Walmart, and various other retailers where fewer than half of the customers are wearing masks and nobody does anything about it. I do expect there are going to be certain environments where masks are required for a longer time period than in retailers. Workplaces, things like airports, airplanes, perhaps even restaurants. Masks are going on clearance and heavily discounted at various retailers at this time. Both the fabric based masks and disposable masks. I’ve picked up a lot of masks lately at giveaway prices; 5pk fabric masks at Walmart that were $14.97 originally now… Read more »
Kai Clarke

No mask, no service. Mask wearing should be addressed just like smoking. You cannot smoke in a store, you cannot go in a store without a mask. Not wearing a mask is not a right, but a public health hazard just like secondhand smoke. Respect others’ space in the same way. No one has the right NOT to wear a mask because it impacts the health of others, just like smoking in the same environment impacts another person’s health through the impact of secondhand smoke.

"It’s simple – the pandemic is NOT over yet."
"Rules have one other pesky quality, the time will inevitably come when you want to make an exception, but you can’t. Not if you want to have a rule (or law)."
"I’m a broken record on this — let the scientists and medical professionals determine the protocols for keeping people safe."

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