Balancing Worker Safety and Customer Demands

Municipalities and businesses across the United States have enacted mask mandates in an effort to quell the spread of the coronavirus. Despite that, a handful of Americans refuse to comply, raising the question of enforcement. While some local governments fine those who violate public health guidelines, the routes for recourse for businesses are unclear. How should a restaurant or retailer respond if a customer objects to wearing a mask?

Why Wearing a Mask is Important

The use of face coverings dramatically decreases the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Even if you do not feel sick, you may still be spreading COVID. Studies show that 40-50% of people who test positive for the coronavirus show no symptoms. Furthermore, symptoms can take anywhere from 2-14 days after exposure to develop. During the incubation period, one may unknowingly spread the virus.

A common sentiment among those who do not wear masks is that they are not personally at high risk for COVID. However, by not wearing a mask, you endanger others more than yourself. With the exception of medical-grade respirator masks, masks protect others from being infected by the wearer. The real reason to wear a mask is for others.

Handling Customers Who Refuse to Wear Masks

Across the country, reports abound of employees being met with violence when asking patrons to wear a mask. President of United Food and Commercial Workers International labor union, Marc Perrone, told Eater that “many retailers are failing to protect their essential workers by not taking stricter measures or hiring additional security forces that can help enforce mask policies.” Some practical steps businesses can take to minimize the chances of hostile incidents while also observing public health guidelines are as follows:

  1. Signage: Before customers even enter a building, a business’s social distancing and safety policies should be abundantly clear. Many choose to use humor to convey the message, while others focus on employee safety and the mandate on the company to provide a safe working environment.
  2. Provide No-Contact Options When Possible: For those not wishing to comply with public health guidelines, businesses can include their phone number on the signage for curbside pickup or delivery options. Depending on the nature of the business, remote alternatives, like online shopping, may also be possible.
  3. Train Employees on Mask Policies: Employees should not argue with customers refusing to wear masks or physically force customers to leave, as it can escalate the situation. Train employees to remain calm, cool, and collected. Security or local law enforcement are the ones who should be tasked with handling these situations.
  4. Free Masks: Consider offering masks to customers attempting to enter a business without a mask on. If someone forgot their mask in their car or home, this might diffuse the frustration they are feeling.

Workers on the front line are often met with threats and violence when trying to enforce mask mandates. Employers have a duty to create a safe workplace, in terms of both COVID and customer hostility. This means adopting policies that protect customers and employees from germs and that minimize the chances of a hostile incident occurring. 

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