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Retailers to Politicians on Wearing Masks: Help!

Words by Leon Kaye
Wearing a Mask

As it becomes clear that Americans are more likely to watch videos of “Karens” objecting to wearing masks more than viewing Hamilton on Disney Plus, retailers have thrown their collective hands up in the air and are increasingly asking political leaders to step up and enforce mask mandates.

It’s quite a turn of events for America’s food service and retail companies, which along with the rest of the U.S. business community, have turned to the embrace of corporate responsibility and sustainability as a way to blunt government regulations and enforcement.

Wearing masks makes bottom-line sense, but…

This trend coincides with a widely read Goldman Sachs survey from earlier this month, which concluded that if all Americans would agree to start wearing masks, it would prevent the loss of approximately 5 percent of U.S. GDP, or about $1 trillion from disappearing within the U.S. economy.

“Lower transmission rates can also help schools reopen, freeing parents from daytime childcare responsibilities that have left them unable to work, even from home,” wrote Megan Cerullo of CBS News. “Women in particular have been forced out of the workforce because childcare tends to fall on their shoulders.”

In other words, U.S. citizens on average would save about $3,000 in collective hits to their pocketbooks, whether they are healthcare costs, the price of childcare or most dire: the loss of their jobs.

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) is one trade group that has been speaking out in favor of wearing masks in public. The NAM has also launched an advertising campaign supporting such action.

“There is no way to sugarcoat this—we need to get America back to work now and get our economy roaring again. The virus is spreading in a significant way, and if it continues, that will lead to economic devastation the likes of which we have never seen before,” said NAM President and CEO Jay Timmons in a public statement last month. “If everyone wears a mask outside the home, maintains social distancing with anyone other than the family unit and practices appropriate hygiene procedures, we will get the tens of millions of unemployed Americans back to work.”

Signs on the door are clearly not enough

According to The Hill, NAM’s stance reflects the recent wave of business leaders asking state and local officials to step up the enforcement of mask mandates. They argue that it’s unfair to expect frontline workers, notably those in the food service and retail sectors, to shoulder that burden. These “essential workers” have increasingly become collateral damage in the culture wars over wearing masks in public spaces, and it’s clear the emotional toll on them is often not worth the low hourly wages for which they work.

The problem, however, is that many sheriffs and law enforcement officials have made it clear they will not enforce such mandates, whether such a stance is based on the resources they have at hand, or if they side with the segment of the U.S population that refuses to don a mask as a political statement. “Don’t be a sheep,” said one local sheriff in Washington State to a crowd last month in the wake of Governor Jay Inslee’s announcement of a statewide mandate.

Start wearing masks, but telling you that…isn’t my job – or is it?

But with COVID-19 cases surging to the point where one in 100 U.S. citizens have been afflicted with this virus, it’s clear society needs more than the men and women in blue to enforce such a mandate.

“It is unfair and, we feel, not appropriate to ask retail workers, grocery store workers, and restaurant workers to have to enforce these requirements,” said Jason Straczewski, vice president for government relations and political affairs at the National Retail Federation, in an interview with The Hill’s Silvan Lane. Straczewski added that retail companies are willing to provide “plenty of signage” and “friendly reminders” insisting that consumers must be wearing masks.

The challenge, however, is that many retail managers, and their direct reports, often do not feel empowered to enforce such policies. Even if a Bebe shirt-wearing consumer pitches a fit, slams her basket on the floor and ends up humiliating herself on social media, that doesn’t mean these same employees would avoid any repercussions.

The bottom line is that if those addictive cell phone videos were effective in changing the behavior of these consumers, we would have witnessed a stop in these outbursts by now.

“It turns out, as satisfying as it is to watch someone reprimanded for bad behavior, the videos themselves might not be an effective tool to change attitudes toward public health,” wrote Alex Abad-Santos on Vox last week. “And according to health and behavior experts, changing someone’s mind about masks is much more difficult than embarrassing them on candid camera.”

Frontline workers, and their manager, should feel empowered and protected to make that decision to refuse service to consumers who aren’t getting the message that a wearing masks isn’t about them, but about protecting other people. Costco appears to be winning on this front, but by and large, other retailers are passing the buck.

One Walmart employee, Cynthia Murray, has suggested that frontline workers should have representation with a seat on a company’s board of directors. Murray argued that hourly workers’ representation on Walmart's board could help address blind spots between a company’s policies and what's actually occurring day-to-day in stores. Last month, Walmart’s shareholders ended up voting against a proxy statement proposal that Murray herself wrote, but to her credit, she helped launched an important discussion, one that will not fade away anytime soon.

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Image credit: Tamas Tuzes-Katai/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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