As retailers around the country continue to reopen their brick-and-mortar stores, they are considering what steps need to be taken to keep employees and customers safe. While just a few months ago, masks were a rare sighting on American streets, they have quickly become a staple in public places. The CDC is clear in its recommendation that people wear face coverings in public settings to slow the spread of COVID-19, and yet many retailers are struggling with whether or not to require customers to wear masks in their stores, or how to enforce such a policy.
While most businesses are requiring employees to wear masks while working, many retailers fall short of setting formal policies for customers. Agilence’s recent research found that just 19% of grocers believe that customers want a mandated customer PPE policy post-pandemic.
On the surface, it’s a bit perplexing that an important public health concern is up for debate, but it’s an issue worth examining as even local and state governments have grappled with the issue.
A Look at State and Local Government Ordinances
Several states, including New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, now require individuals to wear facemasks in public when shopping or riding public transit because social distancing may not be possible in these settings.
Other states have tried to require their citizens to wear facemasks but changed course after public backlash. For example, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced on April 27th that residents of Ohio would be required to wear facemasks in stores, only to reverse the decision the following day saying that Ohioans found it “offensive” and that “people were not going to accept the government telling them what to do.”
For more details including a full list of Statewide Facemask Orders, please see this article from Littler.
In addition to statewide ordinances, many local governments have also issued provisions concerning who is required to wear facemasks and in which settings they are or are not required. But they’ve also received backlash and have had to rescind certain requirements. Mayor Will Joyce of Stillwater, Oklahoma implemented a facemask requirement after lifting stay at home orders in May, and just hours later revised the orders to “encourage” the use of facemasks after employees of stores reported instances of physical violence and verbal abuse.
It’s clear that retailers must adhere to both state and local requirements for facemasks and other PPE, but many laws and regulations have fallen short of documenting requirements or left it completely to the retailer to enforce any such mandate.
The Mask Wars: A Look at Both Sides
Adding to the pressure, the effectiveness of masks and the legality of PPE policies have become heightened topics of debate in recent days. There have been a string of viral videos of customers being asked to leave stores for not wearing face coverings, with some turning violent in response [1,2].
Media Psychologist, Dr. Pamela Rutledge did a great job recently breaking down the narratives driving the conflict surrounding masks. I will do my best to summarize some of her points here, but I highly recommend reading her article in full.
All arguments are made up of narratives. Compelling narratives tap into primal human emotions and the narratives surrounding the facemask debate are no different.
The conflicting values/narratives currently surrounding masks can effectively be simplified to community versus autonomy. Those who refuse to wear masks (excluding those with legitimate medical reasons that are unable to wear one) value their individual comfort and rights but may be willing to take more risks with what they perceive as the health and safety of the community.
The narrative in favor of wearing masks is one of community health, social connection, and altruism and cites authorities like epidemiologists and medical professionals for social proof. These experts make recommendations based on their (albeit limited) understanding of COVID-19, and individuals who wear masks do it for the safety of both themselves and those around them.
The anti-mask narrative focuses on threats of safety (both personal health/safety and livelihood/economic well-being) and the fear of losing autonomy. One of the core arguments is that masks aren’t effective at preventing infection, which all evidence suggests is untrue. There are also claims being spread that masks can cause medical issues, which are easily refuted both by critical thinking (surgeons and other medical professionals regularly wear masks for prolonged amounts of time) and a bit of research.
But perhaps the largest argument against masks is that it violates individual constitutional rights which is an argument that doesn't hold a ton of water (at least when you apply it to what privately-owned businesses can or cannot ask of their shoppers) as I’ll explain in the next section.
Can Retailers Legally Refuse Service?
So, a customer doesn’t want to wear a mask. They say it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable. They just won’t do it. Can they be denied service? Is it against their rights as an American Citizen to be turned away?
The short answer is, of course businesses reserve the right to refuse service in a nondiscriminatory manner. Like “no shirt, no shoes, no service” standards, individual rights are not being infringed upon by denying service on private property. Some businesses will serve customers who don’t wear those items. Others won’t, but it is at the business’ discretion.
Private companies have the right to turn customers away, and patrons have the right to choose which establishments they’ll give their business.
So, Retailers CAN Deny Service, but SHOULD they?
While it’s perfectly within a business’ right to deny service to anyone in violation of their PPE policy, the question then becomes SHOULD they enforce such policies? This is the question that every retailer must ask themselves, keeping in mind the safety, health, and well-being of both their customers and their employees.
For more information on the effectiveness of facemasks or other face coverings to reduce the spread of COVID-19, please visit the CDC’s website.