COVID-19 / Retail

States Drop Mask Mandates, Putting Retail Workers At Greater Risk


After flattening briefly, the spread of COVID-19 continues: Infections are back up slightly in Texas and Mississippi, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

And yet governors in those states—along with those in Iowa and Montana—have rolled back mask mandates, bowing to pressure from groups that claim mask enforcement curtails their civil liberties.

The opposing argument is the scientific one. Masks have been shown to have the highest efficacy of all mitigation efforts in curbing the spread of COVID-19. And the country’s health experts and scientists concur that this is not the time—roughly three months out from when vaccines will be available for all American adults—to take them off (President Biden called the move from governors “Neanderthal thinking”).

Most Americans are in favor of mask-wearing. Maskless individuals in public places put everyone at risk, but especially retail workers, who interface with members of the general public every day.

The current risk of infection for retail workers in these states is acute—so much so that the National Retail Federation (NRF) issued a statement yesterday reminding the public that retail stores have the power to require customers to mask up, no matter what state they’re in.

“Retail stores are private entities. If they require you to wear a mask in their stores, and you choose not to, that store can refuse admission or service,” NRF senior vice president of communications and public affairs Bill Thorne said.

“Retailers are private businesses, and it is within their right to implement and enforce policies that protect the health and the safety of their employees and their customers. As we have seen throughout the pandemic, states and municipalities have mandated mask policies, yet have failed to provide any enforcement mechanisms, leaving it up to individual business operators to take steps recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and other health experts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Research shows the vast majority of consumers are not only aware of the importance of wearing a mask, 87% of consumers surveyed are willing to wear a mask if the business required it, even if they had the vaccine.”

Retail workers, who are not eligibile for the first rounds of vaccines in any U.S. state (something the NRF pushed for), have shouldered untold physical and emotional burdens throughout the pandemic.

In May 2020, we wondered if stores should require customers to wear masks, before it became crystal clear that of course they should. But convincing anti-maskers to don masks for the public good has been stressful for store workers.

Videos of uncouth, unmasked shoppers roaming and raging inside retail stores—once or twice with guns, and seemingly always with misguided chips on their shoulders—have abounded online.

Major U.S. retailers including Target, Kroger, Best Buy, Kohl’s, and Ulta say they will still require masks in stores. But these types of confrontations are likely to increase now that anti-maskers in several states have permission from their governors to unmask. The NRF’s attempt to shield retail workers by educating the public is valiant, but probably won’t make a dent in the problem.

“Mandate or not, retailers are on the front lines of the pandemic, safely providing goods and services, and now vaccines, to people across the country,” said Thorne. “This is not due to government mandates; it is because of their proven commitment to do the right thing for their employees and their neighbors in the communities they serve.”

(Photo by Jernej Furman)

Follow Emili Vesilind on Instagram: @emilivesilind

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By: Emili Vesilind

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