On July 2, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued a statewide mask requirement to dampen a surge in coronavirus cases. Under the order, most Texans would have to cover their faces when entering buildings open to the public, like grocery stores.
The following day, managers at a Sprouts Farmers Market in Texas received a memo related to the new policy. When it came to customers who refused to mask up, the mandate wouldn’t be a mandate after all.
“If customer doesn’t have a mask, we offer them one. If customer still refuses, let them shop,” stated the July 3 memo, a copy of which was provided to HuffPost. “WE ARE NOT KICKING OUT CUSTOMERS WHO DON’T HAVE A FACE COVERING. That is not Sprouts policy.”
A Sprouts spokesperson told HuffPost the company implemented a strict requirement for masks the following week, on July 11. The policy applies to the chain’s 300 stores nationwide and is posted at entrances for customers to see.
“The wellbeing of our team members, our customers, and our communities remain our top priority and we’re continually updating our response to COVID-19 as the pandemic quickly evolves,” the spokesperson, Diego Romero, said in an email.
But the chain’s initial reaction to the Texas order reflects how many grocers and retailers have been slow to take strong stands on masks for customers. A worker who obtained the memo said employees at their Sprouts location were told the store would rather take a fine than press the issue with a stubborn customer who refused to put on a mask.
“I didn’t think that was OK,” said the worker, who asked to speak anonymously for fear of getting in trouble. “Customers still come in, some without masks. They expect courtesy clerks to say, ‘You have to wear a mask.’ But who’s going to listen to a person on the bottom of the totem pole?”
The worker said several customers came in without masks on a shift just this week but were still allowed to shop.
Romero noted that the Texas order provides an exemption for people with a medical condition or disability that prevents them from wearing a mask, and said Sprouts would not be in a position to question such an assertion from a customer.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with other public health experts and worker advocates, have been recommending employees and customers don masks in retail settings for months. The more we learn about the coronavirus, the more evidence we see that face coverings can help slow its transmission, by preventing people who are infected from spreading the disease through droplets.
But the Trump administration has refused to implement a federal requirement, leaving the issue to states and private corporations to figure out.
“They should have security at every single store.”
Many grocers and retailers have held out on requiring customers to wear them as a condition of entering the store, even though it could protect the health of their workers and their families. There are plenty of reasons that could explain why: Companies are afraid to wade into a politicized issue, despite the urgings of experts; they don’t want to escalate tensions with potentially hostile customers; and they don’t want to lose business to more lax competitors.
The United Food and Commercial Workers, a union that represents 900,000 grocery workers, had been urging chains to adopt mask requirements in the spring. “I’m pretty aggravated about it,” the union’s president, Marc Perrone, told HuffPost way back in April. “They weren’t telling customers or workers to wear masks while they were inside these transmission points.”
According to the union, roughly 7 in 10 members in a recent internal poll said their employers were not enforcing mask mandates. At least 93 of the union’s members have died of the coronavirus since March.
Only last week did Walmart, the country’s largest brick-and-mortar retailer, announce that customers would be turned away at the door if they weren’t wearing masks. Other companies like the grocer Kroger and the department store Kohl’s made similar pronouncements.
But even at some chains with clear mask mandates, the requirements ultimately remain little more than requests. CNN reported Friday that Walmart, Home Depot and other retailers are still allowing maskless customers in the store despite masks being mandatory. A Walmart list of talking points for managers echoed the Sprouts memo, saying if someone refused to cover up, “let them continue to shop.”
A Sprouts worker in Colorado said for several weeks customers were allowed to enter her store and shop without a mask despite a local ordinance that made masks a requirement earlier in the pandemic. (Colorado did not issue a statewide mandate until this month.)
“We were told by managers that we did not need to enforce the mask policy regardless of the fact that the city I live in said everybody needed to wear a mask in public places,” said the worker, who asked not to be named. “I was told by management … ‘We’re not the police, so you don’t need to say anything about it.’”
The worker said the new corporatewide requirement has been an improvement, with customers being told to do curbside pickup if they won’t wear a mask. But enforcement often falls to cashiers and greeters whose job shouldn’t involve tussling with belligerent customers.
She said a large man recently refused to cover his mouth with the mask that hung around his neck, saying he was sick of wearing it. The confrontation grew tense, and she had to threaten to call a manager.
The worker said there is no security guard at her location and often the greeter is just a teenager.
“They should have security at every single store,” she said. “I think they really need to reiterate to managers that they need to be willing to stand up for their employees. I’ve seen people berating employees over masks in ways that are completely verbally abusive, and there’s nothing that happens with that customer.”