Whipsawed: Navigating the mask-wearing minefield between customers: for business owners/employees

As business owners, they’re struggling to stay afloat and can’t afford to alienate customers. As employees they’re grateful for their jobs, though fearful that showing up to work puts their health at risk. To keep themselves and customers safe, they’ve added relentless cleaning and disinfecting to their workday.

Now, they’re whipsawed between warring factions. Many customers arrive with masks in place; some also wear gloves. These customers flinch when others stand too close to them, particularly those who lack masks. Other customers show up without masks, occasionally reacting belligerently or as if personally affronted when asked to put on a mask on or practice social distancing. These customers say, “It’s uncomfortable,” “I forgot” or remind business owners and employees, “We live in the land of the free.”

The retail business owners and employees who’ve called me in the last three weeks tell me they feel like they navigate a mine field daily. Masks have become a flashpoint in our country’s culture war; media reports concerning the violence that can result abound. An employee security guard wound up with a broken arm when he tried to escort two men who refused to wear masks out of Target store.1   A customer who wasn’t wearing a mask threw coffee at and then assaulted a female 7-Eleven cashier who refused to serve him.2   A customer punched a cashier three times in the face after being told he couldn’t buy cigars unless he donned a mask.3 When a security guard insisted a customer wear a mask, the customer and her family members left, only to return twenty minutes later and shoot the guard in the head.4 The guard, a father of eight, died.5

What can and should retailers and their employees do? Like restaurants that say “no shirt, no shoes, no service,” can stores refuse admittance to those who won’t don masks? Does relying on the honor system after asking customers to physically distance and don masks work? Can owners expect employees to confront customers who refuse to wear masks or refuse to maintain a six foot distance from others? What happens if store owners and employees turn a blind eye to these customer issues, and allow the customers to work it out among themselves?

Here’s what business owners need to consider.  Across the country, grocery and retail workers have gotten sick from the virus and died. Business owners need to provide their employees and customers a safe work environment. According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately one-third of COVID-positive patients are asymptomatic. While masks don’t protect their wearers from inhaling virus-containing particles, masks protect others near an asymptomatic COVID carrier who might exhale virus particles into the air by talking, coughing or sneezing. Further, some employees feel their employer’s failure to make customers wear a mask puts them at risk.

Stores, as private businesses, can ask or even require that customers wear masks. Employers can train their employees to implement a “wear a mask for service” policy; however, they also need to give their employees permission to back away if they fear a violent reaction. Employees aren’t police and can’t be expected to add de facto mask enforcement to their duties without training in how to educate those who find masks inconvenient and unnecessary and training in how to recognize and de-escalate simmering anger.

What store owners can’t do, as we push toward a new normal under COVID-19, is to ignore this issue.


2 https://www.insider.com/indiana-man-throws-coffee-at-711-cashier-police-coronavirus-mask-2020-5

3 https://www.insider.com/indiana-man-throws-coffee-at-711-cashier-police-coronavirus-mask-2020-5

4 https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/04/us/michigan-security-guard-mask-killing-trnd/index.html

5 https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/06/us/security-guard-shot-mask-wife/index.html

© 2020, Lynne Curry

Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is author of “Solutions” and “Beating the Workplace Bully” and www.workplacecoachblog.com. Curry is President of Communication Works Inc.  Send your questions to her at lynnewriter10@gmail.com or follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10.


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