When COVID-19 began to spread through the United States, Mel Rolleri, a supervisor at The Pantry, a gourmet grocery store in Fairfield, Connecticut, quickly instated a mask-wearing policy for employees and customers. The 6,000-square-foot (557-square-meter) store was deemed an essential business that has remained open throughout the pandemic.
At first, Rolleri politely let customers know they would have to wear a mask when they shopped. She placed signs on the doors instructing people how to properly wear them. Eventually, the door sign was simplified: No Mask, No Entry.
"There has not been a problem lately with people pushing back," Rolleri says. "But in the beginning, I had to hire a security guard." She says she has had shoppers scream, swear and spit at her, and even call her a fascist and Nazi.
The first incident was memorable. Rolleri says when she approached a shopper asking her to wear a mask, the woman told her couldn't for health reasons. So Rolleri says she offered to shop for her and take her groceries out. By then The Pantry had launched a significant curbside service in response to the pandemic.
Instead of agreeing, the woman moved toward Rolleri and screamed, then refused to leave the store when asked. Finally, Rolleri says she pulled out her phone to call the police, and the woman left the store. Rolleri followed her out just to be sure. "If I'd thought clearer, I would have filmed the whole thing."
How Much Can Employees Really Do?
And even though Rolleri says administering her store's mask-wearing policy and other restrictions doesn't bother her, in some cases, employees are not as mature — or as confident — as she is. In Pennsylvania, for example, a 17-year-old employee at Sesame Place children's theme park was punched in the face twice for reminding two guests for a second time to wear their facemasks. The teen required surgery to repair his injuries. Videos of many incidents have been gone viral, including a tirade of a woman at Trader Joe's in California and a man spewing hate at employees at Walmart in Alaska.
So how much can employees really do to deal with this growing issue of anti-maskers that are violating, not just store policies, but in some cases, city and state health mandates?
Mask regulations vary by city, county and state, despite the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's assessment that says "wearing masks can help communities slow the spread of COVID-10 when worn consistently and correctly by a majority of people in public settings and when masks are used along with other preventative measures" like handwashing and social distancing. As of Sept. 3, 34 states and the District of Columbia now mandate face-coverings in public.
Retail stores, including big chains like Walmart, Target and Whole Foods, have their own policies and are responsible for enforcing them. That often means it's up to their employees. For example, Whole Foods Market has required all in-store team members to wear masks since April 13, a Whole Foods Market representative confirmed via email. The grocery store now requires its customers to wear masks as well.
Likewise, Target has developed a specific mask-wearing policy and has a dedicated page on the company's website that details its response to the coronavirus.
"If guests don't want to wear a mask, we'll encourage them to use one of Target's many no-contact fulfillment options, including Drive Up, Target.com or Shipt," a Target spokersperson said via an email statement. In addition to signage and overhead announcements, Target and Whole Foods have both placed team members at the front of the stores to monitor entering shoppers for compliance. Walmart has a similar policy.
Do Police Help With Mask Enforcement?
But how much can those front-line employees really do to enforce the company policies? Not much it seems, especially in states like Georgia, where the governor refuses to enact mask mandates. Even when they call on the police for help. Rolleri knows from experience. "A mandate is not a law," she says.
Rolleri's correct that mandates are not laws. Mandates are issued by government agencies, like the health department. But just like laws, their powers are derived from the legislature, meaning they can be enforced, it just depends on whether they are enforced.
Rolleri learned early on that she couldn't specifically force a person to wear a mask in her store. The only thing she could do was refuse a person service for any reason other than discrimination, and that includes refusing to wear a mask.
But after the visceral encounter with the woman who called her a fascist, Rolleri called the police non-emergency number, and the officer told her next time to call 911, because the cops could arrest a customer who refused to leave for trespassing or causing a disturbance. But they couldn't do anything to a customer for refusing to wear a mask.
Other states seem to be taking a different approach. Colorado, for instance, established mask enforcement teams after it saw cases of COVID-19 increase in late July. According to reporting from Vox, the team had issued more than 800 mask-related warnings by the end of July.
In some cases, though, the pushback on mask mandates is coming from within the police departments. Take Lang Holland, who is Marshall, Arkansas' chief of police. Holland called Governor Asa Hutchinson's mask mandate "a very large overreach of powers," in a press release. Other police chiefs and sheriffs in that state contend they simply don't have the manpower to handle mask-wearing enforcement.
In Northern York County, Pennsylvania, Dave Lash, the regional police chief, called the state's mask-wearing order "volatile" and stressed the importance of focusing on "bigger crime problems and issues," as reported by York Dispatch.
Why Are Masks So Polarizing?
Even with specific policies clearly laid out, non-mask wearers have made various claims about why they don't have to wear them. Viral videos have shown every excuse from health risks to religious freedom. Both have been debunked.
Dr. Jennifer Ashton told "Good Morning America," that if you are in good health, are able to yell and be outside without oxygen, you can safely wear a mask. A doctor in England even ran 22 miles (35 kilometers) while wearing a three-layered cloth mask to prove that doing so does not affect oxygen levels.
And as far as the religious exemption excuse, that is supposedly based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination for a variety of reasons, one of which is religion. However, the Act does not provide an exemption to wearing a mask during a pandemic.
In mid-August, the Journal of American Medicine published a paper suggesting states enact mask laws because laws "can be powerful tools for encouraging health behaviors." It went on to suggest Congress could attach federal funds to the laws, similar to drunk driving laws. That, combined with a well-funded health education campaign could significantly increase mask use, the paper says.