High-profile retailers have been struggling through the COVID-19 crisis on multiple fronts, and employee safety is one of them. Even something as simple as face masks has become fraught with danger. The jumble of inconsistent state-based policies and contradictory messages from the president himself have exposed frontline workers to both verbal and physical abuse. Finally, in recent days, leading retailers have taken matters into their own hands, and that appears to have sparked a new position from the president.
It is not unprecedented for public health experts to receive pushback on policy and guidance. For example, in the U.S. many drivers still refuse to wear seat belts, funding for research on gun violence as a matter of public health is taboo, and there is a small but aggressive movement against childhood vaccines. Even basic handwashing is an ongoing concern.
However, the COVID-19 crisis has plastered a unique layer of visceral emotion onto public health issues, and it is playing out in public. Wearing a face mask is a simple, basic health precaution, but it has become a matter of intense personal identity, evoking over-the-top responses that are more commonly associated with gun extremism than, say, having to wear shoes and a shirt in a store.
In terms of retailer action, the comparison to gun extremism is an apt one. In the absence of national leadership on gun safety, in recent years Dick’s Sporting Goods and other leading retailers have taken up the call for common sense solutions.
In particular, Kroger and other leading retailers have begun to focus on employee and shopper safety issues involving right-to-carry laws.
Similarly, retailers have begun to act in the absence of national leadership on face masks. Costco and Apple were early adopters of mandatory masks, beginning in May.
However, through May and June many states continued to de-emphasize masks. Even as the pandemic spread widely throughout the U.S., the president refused to demonstrate leadership on masks and repeatedly appeared in public without a mask.
That foot-dragging has put retail workers in the line of fire, facing customers who become verbally and physically aggressive when simply asked to wear a mask in a store.
The failure of national leadership is also putting retail customers in jeopardy. For example, earlier this week a Walmart shopper in Pennsylvania was spat on when she asked another customer to wear a mask.
Some state governors finally began to tighten up their mask policies in July, but as of this writing 10 states still have no universal policy, and at least one state leader — Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia — has thwarted efforts by local mayors to establish mandatory mask protocols in their jurisdictions.
Against this backdrop, in July the Costco and Apple mask trickle turned into a flood.
Of interest, Starbucks uses the same “respectfully ask” language that it has previously deployed to discourage customers from bringing guns into its stores: “We respectfully require customers follow social distancing and safety protocols recommended by public health officials, including wearing a facial covering when visiting our stores,” Starbucks wrote on its updated store policy. “It is our responsibility to protect our partners and comply with local public health mandates," it added, with the term "partners" referring to employees. "As such, our partners have the right and responsibility to refuse service to customers who are not wearing facial coverings.”
Best Buy and Panera Bread followed suit soon after the July 9 announcement. By July 16, Walmart and Target announced mask requirements as well.
Finally, on July 17, the organization Business Roundtable issued a nationwide call to action, encouraging all companies to require masks regardless of state policies that fail to encourage them:
"Rising infection rates around the country are putting public health and our economy at grave risk. Failure to bring the pandemic under control will have devastating, long-term consequences for millions of Americans,” the organization wrote. "One of the most effective things we can all do to protect public health and the economy is to wear face coverings in public settings, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”
Business Roundtable has also joined a series of lobbying efforts with other business organizations in support of a nationwide mask policy, including a July 2 open letter addressed to the president, vice president, and the governors of Maryland and New York.
It seems that business leaders are now responding in force.
As of July 20, USA Today reported that more than two dozen national retailers have joined the effort, including Apple, CVS, Lowe’s, Trader Joes, Verizon and Whole Foods, among others. That includes Winn-Dixie, which is concentrated in southern states where the COVID-19 crisis is spinning out of control.
Coincidentally or not, on July 20 the president tweeted a dramatic-looking black-and-white official photo of himself wearing a black face mask, similar to the one that Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate in the 2020 election cycle, has been wearing all along.
It was the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that the president forcefully celebrated wearing masks, though with the following message:
“We are United in our effort to defeat the Invisible China Virus, and many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance. There is nobody more Patriotic than me, your favorite President!”
Aside from the racially-charged rhetoric, the all-about-me framing and the freighted reference to patriotism, the message still doesn’t carry the weight of any type of real leadership. Instead, the tweet positions the president as following guidance from “many people” rather than setting the standard himself.
If by “many people” he meant many leaders in the business community, that is the only place where national leadership is residing today as the death toll rises and the suffering needlessly continues.
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Image credit: Anna Shvets/Pexels
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.