As Mask Mandates Lift, Retail Workers Again Feel Vulnerable

Marilyn Reece, the senior bakery clerk at a Kroger in Batesville, Miss., Noted this month that more customers were walking through the store without a mask after the state mandate to wear face coverings was lifted. Kroger still needs them, but that doesn’t seem to matter.

When Ms. Reece, a 56-year-old breast cancer survivor, sees these shoppers, she prays. “Please, please, don’t make me wait for you because in my heart I don’t want to ignore you, I don’t want to refuse you,” she said. “But then I think I don’t want to get sick and die either. It’s not that people are bad, but you don’t know who they came in contact with. “

Ms. Reece’s increased concern is shared by retail and fast food workers in states like Mississippi and Texas, where governments lifted mask mandates before the majority of people were vaccinated and as new variants of the coronavirus emerge. It feels like a return to the early days of the pandemic when companies said customers were required to wear masks but there were no legal requirements and numerous buyers simply turned it down. Many employees say that their stores do not enforce the requirements and that they risk verbal or physical arguments when reaching out to customers.

“It has a huge false sense of security and it is no different now than it was a year ago,” said Ms. Reece, who is still unable to get a vaccine due to allergies. “The only difference we have now is that people are being vaccinated, but enough people have not been vaccinated that they should have overturned the mandate.”

For many people who work in retail, especially grocery stores and big box chains, the lifting of the mask is another example of how little protection and appreciation they have received during the pandemic. While they were hailed as essential workers, this rarely resulted in additional wages on top of their low wages. Grocery workers were initially not given a priority for vaccinations in most states, despite health experts advising the public to limit time in grocery stores because of the risk of new coronavirus variants. (Texas opened availability to everyone 16 and older on Monday.)

The issue has seriously gained in importance: on Monday, President Biden urged governors and mayors to maintain or reintroduce the order to wear masks if the nation grapples with a possible spike in virus cases.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents nearly 900,000 food workers, announced this month that at least 34,700 food workers across the country had been infected or exposed to Covid-19 and that at least 155 workers had died from the virus. The recent mass shootings at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado have only further shaken workers and increased concerns for their own safety.

Diane Cambre, a 50-year-old ground supervisor at a kroger in Midlothian, Texas, said she had spent much of the past year worrying about bringing the virus home to her 9-year-old son and from interacting with it To fear customers who were frivolous about the possibility of getting sick. She wears a double mask in the store despite irritating her skin, already itchy from psoriasis, and changes as soon as she gets home.

After Texas Governor Greg Abbott said on March 2 that he would end the statewide mask mandate within the next week, Ms. Cambre said customers “walked in immediately without a mask and so on and it was quite difficult to get someone to wear one.” “Management is supposed to offer masks to people who don’t wear them, but if they don’t put them on, nothing else is done,” she said.

Asking customers to wear masks can lead to tense exchanges and even tantrums in adults pushing the cart.

“Some of our customers are dramatically vulnerable so they will start screaming, ‘I’m not wearing this mask,’ and you can tell they are very rude and very harsh in their voices,” said Ms. Cambre, a UFCW member, said. Monitoring the self-checkout aisles has been particularly difficult, she said, as customers who need help will request that they come by, making it impossible to stay within two meters.

At times when she’s been trying to explain the need for distancing, “they say,” OK, and that’s just a government thing, “she said.” It really is mentally challenging. “

Updated

March 30, 2021, 9:12 p.m. ET

A representative from Kroger said the chain “will continue to require everyone in our stores across the country to wear masks until all of our frontline grocers can get the Covid-19 vaccine,” and that they will workers who do one-time Make payments of $ 100, offering one-time payments, received the vaccine.

Because of different government and business mandates, some workers are concerned about further confrontations. The retail industry tried to address the problem last fall when a large trade group put together training to help workers manage and de-escalate conflicts with customers resisting masks, social distancing and capacity constraints. Denial of service for those without a mask or being told to leave has led to incidents over the past year such as slapping a cashier in the face, breaking an arm by a Target employee, and fatally shooting a Family Dollar security officer .

That month, a 53-year-old man in League City, Texas, near Houston, confronted an employee who refused to wear a required mask in a Jack in the Box employee and then stabbed a store manager three times as if from a report in The Houston Chronicle emerges. On March 14, a ramen shop in San Antonio with racist graffiti was destroyed after its owner criticized Mr. Abbott on television for lifting the mask mandate in Texas.

On March 17, a 65-year-old woman was arrested in a Texas City office depot after refusing to wear a mask or leaving the store just days after an arrest warrant was issued for her in Galveston, Texas because they had behaved similarly at a Bank of America location.

MaryAnn Kaylor, the owner of two antique stores in Dallas, including Lula B’s Design District, said lifting the mask mandate was very important to business and people’s behavior.

“He should have focused more on getting people vaccinated rather than trying to open everything up,” she said of Governor Abbott, noting that Texas has one of the slowest vaccination rates in the country.

“You still have cases in Texas every day and you still have people dying from Covid,” she said. “This complete removal of mandates is stupid. It shouldn’t have been based on politics – it should have been based on science. “

Some Texans have started to go to mask-friendly facilities. Ms. Kaylor said there were lists on Facebook of Dallas companies in need of masks and that people consulted her to find out where to buy groceries and make other purchases.

Emily Francois, a sales rep at a Walmart in Port Arthur, Texas, said customers ignored signs to wear masks and Walmart did not enforce the policy. So Ms. Francois stands six feet from non-masked buyers, though this annoys some of them. “My life is more important,” she said.

“I see customers walk in without a mask and they cough, sneeze, they don’t cover their mouths,” said Ms. Francois, who has worked at Walmart for 14 years and is a member of United for Respect, an advocacy group. “Customers who come into the store without a mask make us feel like we’re not worthy and unsafe.”

Phillip Keene, a Walmart spokesperson, said, “Our policy of requiring employees and customers to wear masks in our stores has helped keep them safe during the pandemic and we are not currently lifting these measures.”

Before the pandemic, Ms. Reece, the Mississippi Kroger employee, wore a mask to protect herself from the flu because of her cancer diagnosis, she said.

She said 99 percent of customers in her small store wore masks during the pandemic. “When they had to put it on, they put it on,” she said. “It’s like giving a child a piece of candy – that child will eat those candies if you don’t take them away.”

She is concerned about the potential harm from new varieties, especially those that don’t cover her mouth. “You just have to pray and pray that you won’t come within six or ten feet of them,” said Ms. Reece, who is also a UFCW member and has worked for Kroger for more than 30 years. “I know people want it to go back to normal, but you can’t just get it back to normal.”

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