Retail Workers Feel Vulnerable Again as Mask Mandates are Lifted
As states like Texas and Mississippi eliminate mask standards, one Kroger employee said, “it’s no different now than it was a year ago.”
After the state requirement to wear face coverings was removed this month, Marilyn Reece, the lead bakery clerk at a Kroger in Batesville, Miss., found more customers wandering around the store without masks. Even though Kroger still needs them, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Ms. Reece, a 56-year-old breast cancer survivor, prays when she sees such shoppers. “Please, please, don’t make me wait on them,” she begged. “I don’t want to ignore them, and I don’t want to deny them.” “But then I remember that I don’t want to get ill and die. It’s not that people are bad; it’s just that you never know who they’ve met.”
Ms. Reece’s fear is felt by supermarket and fast-food staff in states such as Mississippi and Texas, where governments have abolished mask mandates before the majority of residents have been vaccinated and new coronavirus strains have arisen. It feels like a throwback to the early days of the pandemic, when retailers demanded that consumers wear masks despite the fact that there was no legal requirement and many shoppers simply declined. Many employees complain that their employers do not follow the law, and that approaching customers risks verbal or physical conflict.
“It gives a false sense of protection, and it’s no different now than it was a year ago,” said Ms. Reece, who is allergic to vaccines and has yet to obtain one. “The only difference now is that people are getting vaccinated, but there are still enough people who haven’t gotten vaccinated that the mandate should have been lifted.”
The mask repeals are yet another example of how little security and appreciation many people working in retail, especially in grocery stores and big-box stores, have received during the pandemic. Although they were respected for being necessary employees, this rarely translated into additional compensation on top of their low pay. In most states, grocery workers were not given priority for vaccines at first, despite health experts urging the public to restrict their time in supermarkets due to the danger posed by new coronavirus variants. (On Monday, Texas made availability available to those aged 16 and up.)
The problem has gained a lot of traction: As the country grapples with a possible increase in virus cases, President Biden called on governors and mayors to uphold or reinstate orders to wear masks.
Covid-19 has infected or exposed at least 34,700 grocery workers across the world, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers group, which represents approximately 900,000 workers. At least 155 workers have died as a result of the virus. The recent mass shooting at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, has only contributed to employees’ fears for their own safety.
Diane Cambre, a 50-year-old floor supervisor at a Kroger in Midlothian, Texas, said she had spent most of the previous year worried about spreading the virus to her 9-year-old son and dreading encounters with customers who were dismissive of the risk of becoming ill. She wears a double mask in the store despite the fact that it irritates her psoriasis-affected skin, and she changes her clothes as soon as she gets home.
Customers “started coming in not wearing a mask and stuff,” Ms. Cambre said, after Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced on March 2 that the statewide mask mandate would be repealed the following week. People who aren’t wearing masks are supposed to be offered them, but if they don’t put them on, nothing else is done, she said.
When customers are asked to wear masks, it can lead to tense conversations and even tantrums from cart-pushers.
“Some of our customers are drama-prone, so they’ll start shouting, ‘I’m not wearing that mask,’ and you can tell they’re being rude and harsh,” said Ms. Cambre, a U.F.C.W. member. She said that overseeing the self-checkout aisles has been particularly difficult because customers who need assistance would demand that she come over, making it hard to maintain a six-foot gap.
When she tries to explain why distancing is necessary, “they say, ‘OK, and that’s just a government thing,’” she says. “It takes a toll on your mental health.”
A Kroger spokesperson said the company will “continue to require everyone in our stores around the country to wear masks until all of our frontline supermarket associates will receive the Covid-19 vaccine,” and that staff who received the vaccine would be eligible for a $100 one-time payment.
Some employees are concerned that further clashes will arise as a result of conflicting state and corporate mandates. Last fall, a major labor organization assisted in the creation of training to help staff handle and de-escalate disputes with customers who objected to masks, social distancing, and store capacity restrictions. People without masks being refused service or asked to leave has resulted in accidents such as a cashier being hit in the face, a Target employee losing his arm, and a Family Dollar security guard being fatally shot in the past year.
According to The Houston Chronicle, a 53-year-old man who refused to wear a necessary mask in a Jack in the Box threatened employees and then stabbed a store manager three times this month in League City, Texas, near Houston. After its owner criticized Mr. Abbott on television for removing the Texas mask mandate, a San Antonio ramen shop was vandalized with racist graffiti on March 14.
A 65-year-old woman was arrested in an Office Depot in Texas City on March 17 after she refused to wear a mask or leave the shop, just days after an arrest warrant was released for her in Galveston, Texas, for acting similarly in a Bank of America branch.
The repeal of the mask requirement had a significant impact on stores and people’s attitudes, according to MaryAnn Kaylor, owner of two antique stores in Dallas, including Lula B’s Design District.
Governor Abbott should have concentrated more on having people vaccinated rather than attempting to open it up, she said, adding that Texas has one of the slowest vaccination rates in the world.
“Every day in Texas, you have cases, and people are still dying from Covid,” she said. “This complete repeal of mandates is a blunder. It shouldn’t have been decided on the basis of politics; it should have been decided on the basis of science.”
Some Texans have begun to search out places that are mask-friendly. Ms. Kaylor said that a list of Dallas businesses that need masks was circulated on Facebook, and that people were using it to find out where to buy groceries and other products.
Customers had been ignoring signs to wear masks, according to Emily Francois, a sales associate at a Walmart in Port Arthur, Texas, and Walmart had not been implementing the policy. As a consequence, Ms. Francois stands six feet away from shoppers who aren’t wearing masks, which irritates some of them. She said, “My life is more important.”
Ms. Francois, who has worked at Walmart for 14 years and is a member of the advocacy group United for Respect, said, “I see customers come in without a mask and they’re coughing, sneezing, and they’re not covering their mouths.” “When customers enter the shop without masks, it makes us feel unworthy and unsafe.”
“Our policy of forcing associates and customers to wear masks in our stores has helped protect them during the pandemic, and we’re not removing those steps at this time,” said Phillip Keene, a Walmart spokesman.
Ms. Reece, a Kroger clerk in Mississippi, said she had been wearing a mask to shield herself from the flu long before the pandemic since she had been diagnosed with cancer.
During the pandemic, she said, 99 percent of her small store’s customers wore masks. She said, “When they had to put it on, they did put it on.” “It’s like offering a kid a piece of candy; until you take it away from them, the child will eat it.”
She is concerned about the potential for new variants to cause damage, especially to those who do not wear a mouth guard. Ms. Reece, who is also a U.F.C.W. member and has worked for Kroger for more than 30 years, said, “You only have to pray and pray you don’t get within six feet of them, or ten feet for that matter.” “I realize that people want things to return to normal, but you can’t just wish for things to return to normal.”