April 6, 2021

'My life is more important': Why lifted mask mandates have some retail workers concerned

Daily Briefing

    As some states opt to lift their mask mandates even as coronavirus case counts rise, some people are opting to shop without masks—leaving many retail and fast-food workers feeling worried for their safety and powerless to protect themselves, Sapna Maheshwari reports for the New York Times.

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    'My life is more important'

    According to the Times, retail and fast-food workers in Texas and Mississippi, two states which have recently lifted their mask mandates, are worried about how the lack of a government mandate has affected their workplaces—even if those workplaces still ask customers to wear masks.

    The issue was further heightened by President Biden's recent call for state leaders to maintain or reinstate mask orders as the country tries to stave off another surge in Covid-19 cases.

    For instance, Diane Cambre, a floor supervisor at a Kroger in Midlothian, Texas, said that after Gov. Greg Abbott (R) lifted Texas' mandate, customers immediately "started coming in not wearing a mask and stuff, and it's been pretty hard getting anybody to wear one."

    She explained although Kroger requires customers to wear masks in their stores—and managers are supposed to offer customers masks if they aren't wearing them—if the customers refuse, nothing else happens.

    Marilyn Reece, lead bakery chef at a Kroger in Mississippi, voiced similar concerns. The mask mandate repeal has "given a great false sense of security, and it's no different now than it was a year ago," she said. "The only difference we have now is people are getting vaccinated but enough people haven't gotten vaccinated that they should have lifted the mandate."

    According to Maheshwari, even at times and places where state mask mandates were in effect, workers occasionally encountered physical altercations when confronting noncompliant customers—and some worry that risk of violence could increase if states and businesses advance different masking requirements.

    In one incident, a 53-year-old man who refused to wear a mask at a Jack in the Box in League City, Texas, last month stabbed a store manager three times, Maheshwari reports. In fact, Maheshwari reports that over the past year, refusing service to customers not wearing a mask or asking them to leave the store led to a cashier getting punched in the face, a Target employee breaking his arm, and a security guard at a Family Dollar being fatally shot.

    Even customers who aren't violent can be combative, workers said. According to Cambre—who double-masks to protect herself, although she says doing so irritates her psoriasis—"Some of our customers are drama-prone, so they'll start yelling, 'I'm not wearing that mask,' and you can tell they're very rude in their voice and very harsh."

    The lack of a mask can also make workers "feel like we aren't worthy, we aren't safe," said Emily Francois, a sales associate at a Walmart in Port Arthur, Texas. She said she sees many customers flouting Walmart's mask requirement, even if "they're coughing, sneezing."

    Francois says she tries to protect herself by standing six feet away from unmasked customers, even if that upsets them. "My life is more important," she said.

    For her part, Reece said whenever she sees a customer without a mask, she prays. "Please, please, don't let me have to wait on them, because in my heart, I don't want to ignore them, I don't want to refuse them," she said. "But then I'm thinking I don't want to get sick and die, either. It's not that people are bad, but you don't know who they've come into contact with."

    Reece added that she's concerned about new coronavirus variants circulating throughout the state and the harm they could cause, especially from customers who don't cover their mouths.

    "You just have to pray and pray you don't get within six feet of them, or 10 feet for that matter," Reece said. "I know people want it to be back to normal, but you can't just will it to be back to normal" (Maheshwari, New York Times, 3/30).

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